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Kids suddenly gain in grasp of symbols.

Kids suddenly gain in grasp of symbols

When is an object not what it appears to be? When it serves as a symbol of something else.

The development of an infant's ability to see an object as a symbol is also not what it appears to be, says psychologist Judy S. DeLoache of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Although researchers have often proposed that symbolic understanding develops gradually throughout childhood, there appears to be a rapid advance in an important type of symbolic thinking between 2 1/2 and 3 years of age, reports DeLoache in the Dec. 11 SCIENCE.

In that short span of six months, children become able to think of a small-scale model of a room in two ways at once--as a room in its own right and as a symbol of a larger room that it represents. This broadening of the scope of symbol use, says DeLoache, is a big step on the road to mature symbolic thought, in which virtually anything can stand for anything else.

She tested 16 infants between 30 and 32 months old and another 16 between 36 and 39 months old. The children were from white, middle-class families, and boys and girls were equally represented. Half the subjects in each age group watched as a miniature toy was hidden in a scale model of a room located next to a corresponding full-sized room, and half saw the larger version of the toy hidden in the room itself.

Given four trials, 3-year-olds found the analogous toy in the corresponding location nearly 80 percent of the time without error; 2 1/2-year-olds were successful on only 15 percent of their searches, regardless of which hiding incident they witnessed. Both groups, however, located the toy that they actually saw being hidden 80 percent of the time.

To see if the three-dimensional nature of the model interfered with the younger children's appreciation of it as a symbol, the researchers tested 16 more 2 1/2-year-olds, once with the model and once after being shown a color photograph of where the toy was hidden. The same poor performance was noted in the former situation, but the children used the photographs to find the toy in the room nearly 80 percent of the time without error.

"This is a totally counterintuitive finding,' says DeLoache. It is known, for example, that young children's memories for objects in a three-dimensional model are better than their memories for objects in a comparable photograph. But the only function of a photograph is as a symbol, she explains; it does not need to be thought of as a real object as well as a symbol. Thus, the 2 1/2-year-olds understood that the photographs represented the room and acted accordingly, whereas they treated the model only as a real object that could not be generalized to represent the room next door.

While this finding is intriguing, says psychologist Dennie Wolf of Harvard University, it is unclear why the younger children performed so much better with photographs. Youngsters of that age realize that a scale model represents a real house and that it is for dolls rather than for people, she notes. Further research must clarify whether some aspect of the experimental task influenced the results, or if the finding applies to most children, says Wolf.
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Title Annotation:research on development of symbolic understanding
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 19, 1987
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