Do Children Understand Symbols? It Depends

As adults, we use symbols every day. We use maps to navigate our surroundings, post pictures on social media, and watch television to gain information about the world. Many of our experiences depend on the realization that a symbol (a picture of your house) stands for something other than itself (your actual house).

But although adults use symbols every day, toddlers and children often don’t understand that symbols refer to other things in the world.

For example, research shows that when 18-month-olds were taught new words for hand-drawn pictures depicted in a book, they didn’t learn the new words. Other research shows that when 12- to 18-month-olds watched a video designed to teach them new words over the course of multiple weeks, they didn’t learn any more words than a group of infants who didn’t watch the video, suggesting they didn’t learn anything from the video.

Why do toddlers struggle to learn from something that is so seemingly transparent?

Research in symbolic development – or how children come to understand that a symbol is intended to stand for something else – suggests that toddlers and young children often focus on the symbol itself rather than what it refers to. This prevents them from learning. In the above examples, this means that toddlers will focus on the colorful picture or the television animations rather than on what these symbols stand for in the real world.

That means that when symbols are interesting objects or things, it often means they are bad symbols. Specifically, toy-like symbols are very appealing to toddlers and preschool-aged children, which means children often struggle to learn from them. Two-year-olds typically fail to use a doll as a symbol for their own body, and 2.5-year-olds struggle to use a dollhouse-like model to find a hidden object in a room that the model represents.

The problem is that symbol-makers – television show producers, picture book creators, makers of educational toys – often design symbols to be appealing so that children will want to play with them, but this may actually decrease children’s ability to learn from them. Research shows that 20-month-olds learned fewer new words for pictures in a 3-D pop-up picture book compared to a traditional, 2-D picture book. The pop-up images were likely more eye-catching to toddlers, but actually reduced toddlers’ ability to learn from them as symbols.

With age and experience, children eventually become skilled symbol users like adults. But while toddlers and young children are getting there, simple, obvious symbols may be key to learning.

For instance, although 18-month-olds struggle to learn from cartoonish picture books, they did learn when the pictures in the book were highly realistic, like photographs. Here, learning from a realistic, 2-D picture helped toddlers make the direct connection between the picture and the object it represented.

Getting a jump on symbolic learning may help children use learning tools at earlier ages. When selecting picture books or educational toys and television shows, remember that simplicity is sometimes key when it comes to learning from symbols, especially for younger children. If the show or object is too interesting in itself, it will be more difficult for children to see through the symbol to the object or concept we expect them to learn.

Why Knowing Less Helps Children Learn More

Considering many kids believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, it seems safe to assume that we get smarter with age. From childhood to adulthood, people learn how to read and write, gain skills for their careers, and generally learn how to function in a complex and changing world. Most people like to think that they learn more about how the world works as they grow up.

While people do gain more knowledge over time, knowing more can restrict the way they think. This is because people often rely on their previous knowledge to solve a problem, yet it may limit the solutions they consider.

Think for a second of as many uses for a brick as you can. If you’re like most adults, you’ll come up with building a house or laying a path. But ask a preschooler to think of various uses for a brick (what psychologists call the “Alternative Uses Test” and use to measure creativity), and the child is likely to come up with more imaginative answers: “use as a bed for my hamster” or “pretend it’s an ice cream sandwich.” Adults already know what bricks are used for, so it is more difficult for them to think outside the box.

But children are not hampered by knowledge. They are free to think in whatever way they please, which in some ways can make them better at learning than adults. For example, infants are better at learning languages than older children and adults. This is not only because infants are born equipped with brains that allow them to learn language easily, but also because older children and adults have already learned the vocabulary, speech sounds, and syntax (how words are put together in sentences) of their native language. Knowing their native language makes it difficult for them to learn the rules of a different language without trying to apply the rules of their own native language.

For example, research shows that infants are better at discriminating speech sounds than adults, which is an essential first step in learning a language. Psychologist Janet Werker and her colleagues at University of British Columbia had 6-month-olds and English-speaking adults listen to two similar speech sounds in Hindi. Infants were taught to turn their head toward a speaker when there was a change in sound, and adults were told to push a button when they heard a change in sound. The 6-month olds could differentiate the two similar sounds while the adults could not. Because adults have formed expectations about the speech sounds they hear, they are not able to distinguish the foreign sounds. But 6-month-olds have not learned the speech sounds of their native language, so they are able to pick up on the subtle but important differences, which helps them learn language.

Children’s lack of knowledge also helps them consider multiple options when trying to solve a problem. Imagine your television won’t turn on. You will probably try various solutions – push the power button, check that it’s plugged in, shake the cable box violently. You try process of elimination because adults have learned that most outcomes have single causes.

Children haven’t learned that yet. To study how children and adult understand causes, psychologists at the University of California, Berkley designed a series of studies called the blicket detector test. Pre-school-aged children and adults watch as an experimenter places small shapes on a box called a “blicket detector,” and some of these shapes make the box light up and play music. Participants are shown single objects (e.g., one star) and combinations of objects (a star and a triangle) that activate the machine. Then the experimenter takes out a new set of shapes and shows the participants which of those objects set off the machine. To test whether children and adults learned the causal rules, they are then given the shapes and asked to activate the machine.

While both children and adults learn which individual objects make the machine turn on, pre-school-aged children are better than adults at learning how combinations of objects activate the machine. Because adults typically associate outcomes with single causes, they incorrectly assume that only one of the two shapes on the machine made the machine turn on. Children – who know less about causes and outcomes – were more open-minded about what made the machine go off, and therefore learned the combination of objects. According to the authors of the study, the preschoolers were better than the adults at learning abstract rules and patterns.

There can be drawbacks in simply having more knowledge. Children may not be able to explain what makes a light turn on, but their lack of knowledge actually makes them expert learners, creative thinkers, and innovative problem solvers. Don’t be so quick to assume that you’re smarter than a fifth grader, because knowing less actually makes kids better thinkers – perhaps even better than you.