Reading the Signs

Duck Crossing Sign - Photo by Wollombi via Flickr Creative Commons License

“Look, Mom.  That signs says ‘Watch out for Ducks crossing.'”  That’s what I heard from my three year old in the back of the car this morning, and indeed, though it has no words or letters to read, that is what the sign “says.”   Yay!  We’ve reached symbolic recognition.  Actually this has been a long time coming, and if you know what to look for this piece of the language acquisition puzzle is a lot of fun to watch.  At least I think so, but I am kind of an early childhood nerd.

Babies and Toddlers Love Symbols…well…sort of

In my mind, for babies and toddlers there are really two readily visible areas of growth regarding symbolic recognition.  As is always true of children, the process starts with play. What you see initially is that your baby or toddler begins to substitute one object for another.  This symbolic play happens as your child begins to understand that a toy stands for a real thing (e.g. a toy car represents a real car).  And it happens fairly early on.  The first stages of this may be seen as early as sometime within the second half of the first year of Baby’s life, and the stages expand in use and sophistication as Baby gets older.  Initially you might see your child pretend to talk on a toy phone as if it were a real phone.  But before long, in those toddler years you’ll start to see you child turn blocks into pretend cars, or as many of you have seen in class, turn sandblocks into trains!

Another big area which I see children learning symbolic awareness is through signing.  As you use American Sign Language, your baby or young toddler very clearly begins to see that the symbols or pictures you both create with your hands represent something else – a word, a food, a favorite toy.  Amazingly, babies as young as 6 months can start to respond to signs and even sign back, though for many children this skill comes closer to 10-12 months or even later.  In fact, it is this very exposure to early symbolic recognition that leads kids who sign as children to have better language acquisition and literacy skills than their peers not only early on but also once they hit school.  It makes sense seeing as it’s not a far leap from understanding a sign represents something to seeing that a letter represents a sound and a word represents an object or idea.

Preschoolers Love Symbols

The fascination with symbols and what kids learn from them explode once you hit the preschool years.  Soon children start to recognize logos on stores.  “Hey, Mom, There’s Target!”  They start to “read” books to themselves using the pictures to figure out the story.  And they fall in love with letters.  After all, letters are really just symbols or pictures for sounds, and words are just symbols or pictures for things or ideas in our world.  From there, it is just a few more steps to the magic of true reading!

Best of All – Musicians Love Symbols

It’s true.  Music is full of pictures.  Traditional music notation is nothing more than a picture of what you hear with notes moving up and down on the page as they move up and down the scale, and more contemporary graphic notation presents an even more vivid picture with blocks, squiggles, and lines designed by composers to inspire performers to create a representative sound.  That’s why with the preschoolers, we begin to provide opportunities in class for them to create and respond to elementary examples of graphic notation.  Some weeks they draw pictures to represent a musical except they’ve just heard.  Other weeks, the teachers provide pictures of people climbing up a ladder (representing a musical scale) and sliding down (with a nice squiggle for a glissando or musical sliding sound).  And with our big kids we go even further as we start to introduce traditional notation.  Best of all, all this work with graphic and traditional notation, as well as the symbolic awareness that happens with storytelling and pretend play in class, simply reinforces overall symbolic recognition and awareness adding to pre-literacy skills and language acquisition skills across the board. What a fun process to share!

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