Researcher Judy Deloache describes how children's recognition of scale models as representations reflects development of symbolic reasoning.
One of the most distinctive human characteristics is the ability to understand and use symbols. We have a variety of symbol systems in our everyday lives. We use language, we read, we use pictures, and we understand computer programs. We're not born with this ability, so what I'm studying are the earliest forms of symbolic reasoning that a child understands, and when that cognitive ability to reason develops.
Specifically, I'm concerned with a child's understanding of a scale model, a symbol, that represents a larger space. When the child sees the scale model of a miniature playroom, does the child understand that this little playroom represents a bigger room? And when does a child acquire symbolic understanding? The interesting feature of this research is that we see an abrupt change between ages two-and-a-half and three in a child's ability to understand scale models. When we experiment with scale models of playrooms, the two-and-a-half-year-old doesn't understand the relationship between the symbolic room and the actual room, and instead treats it as a separate object. The three-year-old, on the other hand, understands immediately that the model is a symbol for an actual room.
In becoming symbolic creatures, we learn to think abstractly. At age three, children acquire the ability to think about things in two different ways at the same time: as both an object and a symbol for something else. Acquiring symbolic understanding is an important milestone in the cognitive development that helps us figure out how the world operates. Later in life, for example, we use it to read maps and understand languages.
This research helps us appreciate the complexity of human thought in young children. The clearer our knowledge of what children know, the better we can work with them as educators and as parents.