On Growing a Symbologist

Since we introduced the Imagination Playground, our classroom block building has had renewed life.  Not only are the children interested, once again, in the wooden components, but their buildings have gained much complexity compared to buildings from the beginning of the year.  The detail included in each design and the creativity when representing objects from life has grown exponentially.

As children grow, we witness much development in their ability to represent the world symbolically in play.  As adults we take it for granted that a pretend banana is obviously not a real banana, but can represent the real thing.  A very young child has to adapt to this new concept.  Infants and toddlers will put their toys in their mouths, squish them, smell them, even break them, exploring the differences between this symbolic version of something they are normally familiar with.  With more experience, they realize that, no it is not a real banana, but they can act as if it is and treat it in a similar manner.  This is actually a huge leap in abstract thought.  One of the most commonly mentioned instances of this abstract thinking is using a toy phone to “talk” to someone else.  Take it one step further and a child will extrapolate this new reality to include even more abstract play like using a block, shoe, or other seemingly random object as a “phone”.

Flash forward a few years and witness a Pre-K student playing in the block area.  They already know that they can use unrelated items to symbolize known tools, objects, and experiences.  As they build, they are stretching their understanding as they create a myriad of structures from barns, to roads, to rocket ships.  The growth we witness here is in the complexity with which they are able to make the connections.  We also begin to see more readily how they expand this knowledge to include abstract symbols that represent our language, otherwise known as letters.

The construction above was made in late August.  Notice how it makes use of the flat planes of the wood to create lines and curves that enclose a space.  This particular design was a road.  It took motor planning and fore-thought, along with good old-fashioned experimentation, to find just the right blocks to complete the circuit.  Although it represents a road, the blocks are still used in such a way that they are basically standing in for something just as flat, straight, and connected.  It is a symbolic representation of a road, but my early Pre-K students were not quite ready to branch out beyond the basic perimeters defined by the materials they were using.

Now let’s take a look at a more recent construction. The intricacy of their designs illustrates their newfound abilities to stretch their imagination even further.  No longer do the attributes of the materials predefine the creative  representations.

When she began this project, she was not inspired by the shapes of the pieces to create a symbol.  It happened the other way around.  She wished to create a computer, carefully auditioned a variety of pieces, and finished off her symbolic creation with her own drawn version of a screen and keyboard.

This may seem to be the same thing, but the brain connections needed differ greatly.  In the example of the road designed in the fall, the child began by removing pieces from the shelf. He then noticed that they could be lined up together in neat, straight lines.  It was only after he had begun his construction did he realize that it could represent a road.  The materials came first, then the symbol.  In the computer example from much later in the school year, she began with a plan to design a computer.  Next she chose materials to fit her needs.

I mentioned earlier that this corresponds to how children begin to recognize letters as symbols that can represent our spoken language.  Early drawings seem to adults to have no connection to symbols of daily life or planning of any sort.  It is the joy of the material, be it marker, pen, crayon, or chalk, that drives the creation.  Random seeming wavy lines on paper are not meant to be anything.  They are done purely for the fun and power of seeing how the materials work.  We look for meaning, young children look for joy.  As they grow in their ability to conceptualize their world, their use of the materials to represent what’s around them increases.  Letters, words, and sentences are a branch from this long line of learning that they have been working on since birth.  Moving into letter approximations (things that look kind of like letters, but aren’t), random letter strings, initial sounds written to represent entire words, and writing almost all of the letter sounds that can be heard in each word grows from their practice of accepting the symbology of our world.

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