Confusing symbols and reality

lego_block.jpgThe latest Scientific American discusses the development of symbolic thinking in children, in an article by child psychologist Judy DeLoache.

Professor DeLoache was intrigued as to why young children sometimes try and pick up or use items in pictures, or fail to make sense of miniature objects – an error she calls ‘symbol confusion’:

Pictures are not the only source of symbol confusion for very young children. For many years, my colleagues and students and I watched toddlers come into the lab and try to sit down on the tiny chair from the scale model – much to the astonishment of all present. At home, Uttal and Rosengren had also observed their own daughters trying to lie down in a doll’s bed or get into a miniature toy car. Intrigued by these remarkable behaviors that were not mentioned in any of the scientific literature we examined, we decided to study them.

DeLoache thinks that ‘scale errors’ involve a failure of dual representation: children cannot maintain the distinction between a symbol and what it refers to.

To help children solve this problem, the researchers told the children they had a ‘shrinking machine’, that replaced toys with miniature versions.

When children were told that the toy had been shrunk, they no longer needed to represent it as a symbol of another object, they simply assumed it was the same object, and no longer made ‘symbol confusion’ errors.

This work has had important legal implications, as young children giving evidence in cases of abuse are often given dolls – symbolic representations of themselves – and asked to describe or point out what happened.

Knowing at what age children are likely to make best use of this technique might be essential in obtaining reliable evidence.

Link to Scientific American article ‘Mindful of Symbols’.

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