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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s