Tag Archives: development of symbolic thinking

The development of children’s art

16 Sep

Little girl scribbling

Children’s art has a universal developmental character. The problem is though 

that, as adults, we look at the scratches and marks on paper and wonder if 

there is something wrong with our toddlers. Surely they can see that it does 

not look like anything resembling reality?

The development of art goes hand in hand with the child’s motor development 

and also the child’s perception of space. To get an idea of a baby or toddler’s perception of space we have to 

go down on our knees and even down on our tummies to look at the world and 

the space around us.

Horizontal marks

The first marks on paper is almost by accident. The baby will move the crayon 

on the paper in a horizontal fashion, even looking away while he/she is doing it. It 

sometimes looks as if the baby is as surprised by these marks as the adult.


The next phase is round scribbles that will cover the piece of paper and 

sometimes even go over the boundaries of the paper. Remember the young 

child’s awareness of space? This is the embodiment of the child starting to 

experience that there are boundaries. At first this is done in one colour; and 

day after day the child will make the same scribble usually in the same colour. 

Even if the adult provides nice thick paint brushes, the round circles will still be 

there. The only difference here is that the paint covers the circular nature of 

the paint scribble.

Scribbles with more than one colour

One morning the young artist will let go of the one colour and start using more 

than one colour. It is still a scribble, but the fact that there are more colours 

tells us that this child is in fact starting to look at the scribble. Many colours might be used.

Making smaller round shapes

The next stage of the development of children’s art is getting more and more 

exciting. The big round circle is replaced by smaller round shapes, often in one 

colour, but also sometimes in more than one colour.

Naming the scribble

The next phase is truly fantastic. One day your toddler/young child will say: 

“Look, I made a car”. You will look at the “car” and you are obliged – no it is 

your duty – to say: “Wow, I can see it is a car. We can write “CAR” underneath

 your picture”.  

Just the fact that you show appreciation inspires the young child to do it again 

and again. In this process the young child starts to draw recognisable features. 

Next time the car might have a round shape somewhere!

Head-foot men

Head foot men grow out of the small circles children draw on their art work. 

It usually starts with round shapes with maybe one eye (often the eye is 

outside the round “face” – remember the spatial perceptions?). Gradually 

the figures get facial features, while legs, feet, arms and hands are added over a 

considerable period of time. As the child becomes more proficient, more detail is 

added. A characteristic of this stage is that space is used in a floating manner. 

The head-foot man may be upside down or lying on his side. This is also an 

indication of the emerging spatial insight that will eventually be good enough 

to enable the child to read and write by the time he or she is 6 or 7.

How can you as parent, teacher or adult contribute to this fantastic, exciting 

process? Well … very little. Your task is to be like Sugata Mitra’s proverbial grandmother, saying: “Did you make this? Can you do it again? Show me.” There is no 

better reaction than this. Do not interfere, show your appreciation and stand back.

Next time I will look at the following aspects: development of realistic art, creative problem

solving as part of art, how time and space are portrayed in young children’s art 

and the role of experience as well as the art curriculum.

Remember: “Did you do this on your own? Can you show me?”



In awe of playing

12 Sep
free play

Children should be allowed to make decisions and take risks when playing

I had a conversation with a group of mostly young people working in preschools. The topic of the conversation was play, and more specifically, outside free play. Considering the wide acceptance of the benefits of play, and vigorous outside play, I was perturbed to hear that:

  1. There are not enough teachers to supervise outside play (in some of these schools the ratio is 30/1).
  2. There is not enough physical space and equipment for the number of children playing. On most of these playgrounds trees have been removed as a “safety measure”.
  3. There is very little space for ball play and the typical fantasy play boys participate in, e.g. robbers and good guys, cowboys and crooks, running around with wooden guns and building places to hide in with tyres and blocks.
  4. In one school the boys are prohibited from playing rough games “because they might hurt the girls”.

There are several consequences arising from these circumstances. Some of these consequences are very serious and many of them have a long-term effect on the well-being of our young men. In the above mentioned discussion, considerable time was spent on the level of aggression among these preschool boys (but also the level of meanness among the preschool girls).

General aggression on playgrounds is not an automatic indication that there is something wrong at home – although this could be the case in isolated instances. General aggression on the playground is usually an indication of the health of the preschool programme and the relationships within that programme.

Maria Montessori said that we must follow the child when planning our programme. We are today in a privileged position as far as knowledge of children’s needs and learning is concerned. None of this is guess work. We know exactly what a good programme should look like and what the teachers should do to promote maximum learning and participation in any preschool.

The sad thing is that money and status have very little to do with what happens in a preschool. Parents tend to be dazzled by the bling in the classroom (We used to call it “window dressing” when I was young.) I must say, I do get a little impatient with parents who do not do thorough research before placing their babies, toddlers and young children in outside care. After all, raising your child is one of the most important and enduring things you will undertake in your life. Just the financial implications should be enough to make you do some research before you make the decision where to place your child. A researcher once said the decision to place your child somewhere, means that you are giving the responsibility for the development of your child’s potential, future success and lifelong well-being, over to someone else. Most of us will not even do that when we are buying a car!

We know today that vigorous movement and imaginary play are the two developmental necessities for the development of reading, writing and maths in the primary school. More than that, imaginative game play develops symbolic thinking. Symbolic thinking cannot develop while playing digital games or sitting in front of the television, or by colouring in or completing worksheets. Symbolic thinking includes things like the ability to form relationships, empathy, reading a book and feeling the emotions of the characters in the book.

The other important aspect of learning is the fact that young children need the opportunity to be involved in their own learning. Self-initiated learning is, according to 3 separate research projects, a better indication of academic success and success in adult life than high marks or a high IQ. Self-initiated learning is what happens when young children can plan their own games, use their bodies to take risks, make mistakes and try again.

I want to stand on the corner of the world’s streets and shout: “Let the children play!”

Let us declare play the holy grail of childhood; untouchable, something to look at in awe. We are wasting our children’s learning time if they do not have ample opportunity to play.

Imaginative play

28 Jul

Observing young children is certainly one of the most interesting and revealing activities that parents and teachers can do. Recently, we acquired new climbing equipment for our baby class at school. We bought a climbing gym with a small, low slide and a car made from a drum, tyres and a steering wheel.

Three of our babies turned one year old in the last few weeks and all three these little boys are walking. As soon as the boys saw the car, they made a beeline for it. One of them, Amman, climbed into the car (with the help of his teacher) and assumed the driver’s position, hands on the steering wheel and body leaning forward. I stood about 15 meters away from him. He looked up and made eye contact, and  while still driving with his one hand, he lifted his other hand and waved at me. When I returned the wave, he got very excited and let go of the steering wheel for a moment and waved with both his hands. He then resumed driving.

This little boy turned one year old the previous week. The ability to imagine the drum-and-tyre car as a real car, to make the appropriate noises and to involve someone else in this imaginary game, is the start of a process of development with far reaching implications. At this very young age he is starting to develop symbolic thinking. The moment a young child uses a piece of equipment and changes it into something real by his or her play, we can talk about symbolic thinking.

We often see 18 month old toddlers picking up small blocks and using them as cell phones.  They will even use their hands to do something else, clenching the “cell phone” between their shoulder and ear while pacing up and down, imitating a parent. Playing imaginary games is different from kicking a ball, climbing a tree or sliding down a slide. Imagination involves an internal language and internal visualisation of the imaginary scene. As the child gets older these imaginary games become more intricate, the games involve “props” and other players that must be initiated in the game planned in the child’s imagination. These games have rules and take place in a certain space, while incorporating a continuous process of symbolic thinking. These games also create opportunities for language development and mathematical understanding that have long-term implications for life.

We often think of the value of imaginary games as mainly social and emotional. According to Stuart Brown, games that develop and strengthen spatial skills, an awareness of rules and the use of language, have implications for adult functioning in diverse situations like engineering, being a parent and starting a business.

Symbolic thinking is for example, critical in learning and appreciating poetry, as well as understanding and seeing relationships in literature. All of these things are important for doing well at school. According to research, preschool block builders and players do better in grade 10 Algebra, than those young children that did not participate in this essential preschool imaginary game.

Play is continuously under pressure. It is not waste of time, nor childish and worthless, but a human activity of great value. May we never forget how to play!

What makes us human?

24 May

In the NewScientist of 21 April 2012, there is a very interesting article on what makes us human and why we are different from most animals. This article pinpoints 5 characteristics that make us human in a unique way. Three of these are present in young children and remind us of Alison Gopnik’s words that young children are the research and development phase of humanity.

The first characteristic is being playful. This is my personal favourite. Although many animals play, no species pursue such a wide variety of play over such a long period. Although the nature of play changes as we get older, humans still play into old age. What makes human play different, is the great degree of imagination that is generated in play. If we look at the pinnacle of play in the preschool phase, it is imaginative play that provides children with the opportunity to socialise, compromise and learn from mistakes. Play isn’t simply for fun (Marc Bekoff). Through play, young children develop muscle strength, rhythm, coordination, balance and spatial skills. Even more important is the ability to develop a theory of mind as well as a social instinct. To me one of the most important benefits of play, is the ability to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Children playing without interference of adults learn to trust their instincts, and they learn from the mistakes they make. The article comes to the conclusion that play is a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. One of the benefits of imaginative playing is the development of symbolic thought. The young baby, holding a wooden block to his ear, pretending to talk on a cell phone, is replacing a real object with a symbol of that object. The development of symbolic thinking underlies the development of reading, writing and math.

The second characteristic is one that parents of young children are very familiar with. It is the ability to sort the surrounding environment and experiences into categories. Children are natural scientists looking for meaning in the world around them. The much loved, often repeated question of young children: “But why ..?”, epitomizes this scientific quest. This question eventually links up with the symbolic thinking with the purpose to understand the world better and to be in control of the world. The question “why” is fundamental to the young child taking apart a toy to see why and how it is working; a much more enduring reward than putting batteries in a toy!

The next characteristic is the tendency to make rules. Anyone observing imaginative play in a group of 4 to 6 year old children will notice that making rules is a major part of the play. In fact, this is one of the benefits of play. If we look at this benefit longitudinally we can assume that to play by the rules is a building block of morality. Although rules differ from society to society, and whether we agree with the rules or not, rules are an inherent part of every society. Children playing are thus, without knowing, preparing themselves to function within a particular society.

We often think of children as being in a process of becoming a human being. But by their nature, children are already finely tuned humans.