The use of symbols to represent things is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that we tend to take it for granted. It’s rare for us to stop and reflect that certain shapes represent letters that represent sounds that combine to form words that represent things and people and places and ideas and actions and feelings.
Other kinds of shapes represent numbers and numerical symbols, which represent quantities of things and the different ways those quantities can interact (2+3=5). Still other symbols represent time values and frequencies and when they are interpreted by someone who can decode those symbols, it results in beautiful music.
Our constant use of symbols and representation is an awe-inspiring example of the complexities of the human brain. Nothing is exactly what it seems. Almost everything represents something else. And yet most of us are perfectly fine with dealing with this complex system of codes and symbols and linked meanings every day. Even if we have some trouble doing the actual decoding of all these symbols, we all seem to be pretty comfortable with the idea that using symbols is a part of life.
How does a child make the developmental leap that enables them to relate something literal—a symbol they can see—to something abstract—the idea that symbol represents? What helps them get used to the idea that one thing could actually represent something else—even if those two things have little in common?
The answer is imagination.
Think about it. Maybe you remember lying in the grass on a warm summer afternoon, gazing up at the clouds with your friends and imagining animal shapes in the clouds as they drifted by. Or maybe you liked having pretend tea parties where there may have been nothing more than water in the cups, but you could just imagine you were eating all your favorite treats. Or maybe you remember building temporary play houses or forts in the back yard using just odds and ends of whatever was at hand. During my own childhood, one of the greatest gifts of all was a good-sized cardboard box, which could become anything I wanted – a race car, a steam engine, a tent in the wilderness surrounded by bears.
All of these activities require children to use their imaginations to envision how one thing can represent something else. It also provides them with great training to live in our highly symbolic society.
Here are a few ideas on how to encourage kids to give their imaginations a good workout when it comes to being symbolic thinkers:
- Encourage your child to use everyday, childproof objects around the house as toys. (Quick example: The cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels can become a microphone, a telescope, a laser beam, etc.)
- Consider limiting the number of specialized single-purpose toys that you buy your kids—by which I mean toys that only do one thing and that kids can’t really play with in a variety of situations. Often these specialized toys are linked to movies or television shows, and while there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of toys, the tendency may be for kids to simply use them to reenact scenes from the shows, which limits their use of imagination.
- Read with your children and then ask them questions about the characters and the story. Ask them to imagine themselves in the story as the main character. Would they follow the story? Would they do something differently? Ask them if they know real people who have had something in common with the characters in the story. This can help them see how characters in books can symbolize real people’s situations and adventures.
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