Do children understand symbols? Or do they merely imitate what they see? The study analyzed here by Tomasello et al. aimed to assess whether infants 18-35 months of age were able to comprehend the use (a) replica objects, and (b) associated gestures as a prompt for some target object. Usually, infants learn how to perform these tasks with verbal assistance or actions modeled by adults. The primary focus of the study was to analyze symbol comprehension and production without the scaffolding of assistance.
The current study heavily integrated Judy DeLoache’s theory of dual representation. The theory posits that children younger than three years of age have difficulty comprehending objects as symbols because of the conflict between their material and symbolic affordances. Depending upon the age of the child, congruence of spaces and objects, for example, is not easily comprehensible. If a doll is put in the kitchen of a dollhouse and of an actual house, a child may not be able to locate it in the actual house if it is signified that to be in the same location as in the dollhouse. This is because the doll house is a manipulable object that is designated for play. In order to see the dollhouse as a blueprint of an actual house, they must be able to comprehend the symbolic representation of one as the other. DeLoache’s task was complex in the sense that it required the child to map multiple objects and locations. The current study aimed to reduce those complexities by testing children’s symbolic comprehension with single, isolated objects.
Children of all ages were more apt in comprehending gestures as symbols for objects as opposed to objects as symbols for other objects; however, children at 26 months were very well able to use objects as symbols for other objects. This finding serves as a possible revision to DeLoache’s theory by lowering the age of symbolic ability from 36 months to 26 months, which is quite a remarkable difference.