The power of pretending
Understanding how ‘short-cuts’ or symbols can be, and are, used is the foundation of literacy learning.
The use of symbols is not characteristic of all play. But symbolic behaviour underlies the characteristic of pretence (or pretending), that we associate with the play of young children. The child expresses ideas about the world, feelings and needs through symbolic thought, symbolic play and symbolic role-playing.
If we can appreciate that symbolic play can take many forms, but these all entail creating meaning and expressing that meaning in some way through gesture, language, intonation and objects, then we see play and literacy differently.
Children who become skilled at symbolic transformations in their play are preparing to understand some of the symbolic systems used in written language.
Let’s explore this idea a little further. The ability to abstract the essential features of an object and mentally represent them (with some other object or later with a spoken or written word) is called ‘representational competence’.
So, perhaps next time you see your child using an object as if it were something else, you will recognise this ‘competence’ as an important step in their literacy learning.
However, I am sure you are thinking about the world of difference between using one object to represent another and using a word to represent something.
Literacy researchers use the word ‘distance’ to talk about the difference between objects (or ideas) and the symbols that represent them.
Is this idea of ‘distance’ useful for understanding early literacy learning?
In a world of icons, logos and emojis, we are using symbols almost constantly in our everyday communication of meaning. Some of these symbols look very similar to the thing, emotion or idea they are representing. Some don’t. An emoji of a tree looks like a tree, the smiley face has some features like a human face.
Where the symbol seems to have no visual connection to what they are representing, we say there is a ‘wide distance’ between them.
For example, there is little distance where one object simply represents another; for example, a stick represents a horse. However, if we think about the distance between the word ‘cat’ and the concept of a cat, we see the widest symbolic distance possible. The word ‘cat’ has nothing about it that resembles a cat at all.
Developing abstract thinking
It is through our experience with cats (whether plastic, real or with pictures) that we have made the connection between the word cat and the concept of a cat. Researchers call this process ‘symbolic transformation’. Symbolic transformation is based on the understanding that the marks on a page (whether words or numbers) generate meaning.
Symbolic play forms the foundation upon which children develop their abilities to engage in abstract thinking in literacy, mathematical reasoning and problem solving.
This foundation is at risk if structured, discrete and isolated ‘code breaking’ activities are introduced too early and too often.