Experiments Show Difficulties Young Children Have With Symbols

October 31, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Toddlers, especially those under age 3, probably just don't get it when you expect them to realize that something means something else, say University of Illinois researchers using a "shrinking machine" and video equipment to study the use of symbols.

"There's probably nothing that is more important for a child to learn than the kinds of symbols used in a culture," said psychologist Judy S. DeLoache. "There is no way to become a functioning member of a society without acquiring a whole range of symbolic systems. Once a person figures out what these symbols are, they seem transparent and obvious."

In studies supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, however, the researchers are showing how non-obvious symbols are to young kids just starting to learn about them.

In one project, 2-1/2-year-old children watched as a doll was hidden in a tent-like room. They were then told that a smaller doll was hidden in the same place in a miniature, but otherwise identical, room. Despite four attempts, most of the children could not find the doll. "They apparently failed to realize that their knowledge of one space could be applied to the other," the researchers -- DeLoache and U. of I. psychologists Kevin F. Miller and Karl S. Rosengren -- wrote in the July issue of Psychological Science.

Next, a group of 2-1/2-year-olds watched as the doll was hidden in the tent-like room, but the children were told that a shrinking machine (an oscilloscope with flashing green lights) would shrink the room. While waiting in an adjoining area, they heard "the sounds the shrinking machine makes while it's working." When asked to find the doll in the miniature room, which had surreptitiously replaced the tent-like room, most of the children found the doll.

The results show that young children can apply what they know about a room to a model when they think the two spaces are the same thing, but not when one of them is a symbol for the other.

In another study, accepted for publication in Child Development, doctoral student Georgene L. Troseth and DeLoache used live video presentations of hiding events. After watching on a monitor as a toy was hidden in an adjoining room, most 2-1/2 year-olds found the toy, but most 2-year-olds failed.

"You can't get any more realistic than live video," Troseth said. "It's happening in real time, and it looks like what you'd see in the real world." It may be, the researchers suggested, that younger children simply think that anything on television cannot apply to the here-and-now.

To test this idea, they let another group of 2-year-olds watch through a window as a toy was hidden in the adjoining room. However, unknown to the children, they actually saw the hiding event on a video monitor located immediately behind the window. The majority of the children found the toy.The research using both scale model and videos indicates that young children can reason between a symbol and what it stands for when they think the two are same thing. However, when they are aware of the differences between a symbol and what it represents, they fail to see the relationship between them.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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