The Role of Symbolic Experience in Learning to use Scale Models
Children begin to use symbolic objects and symbol systems in the preschool period. Experience interpreting and using a relatively simple symbolic artifact can lead young children to become sensitive to a more difficult symbolic relation, or to transfer their symbolic insight (DeLoache, 1995a). The majority of studies exploring transfer of symbolic comprehension have done so using the same “object retrieval” problem-solving task for the training and the transfer tasks (Troseth et al., 2019). It is unclear if prior symbolic experience presented in a different task context can help young children understand a more difficult symbolic relation when the task changes. The present research examined if giving 2.5-year-olds symbolic experience with objects in the context of a simple communication task could support their success with a scale model in the object-retrieval task. Study 1 involved pilot testing training tasks based on procedures of Tomasello et al. (1999) to help children comprehend simple symbolic relations. Participants struggled to use objects (e.g., replicas, pretend transformations) as symbols for other objects, requiring extensive support to do so. Study 2 explores the effect of two version of the training task on search performance in the scale model object-retrieval task. The training tasks were designed to build up young children’s symbolic sensitivity to new symbolic relations by giving them experience interpreting a variety of symbol-referent relations. However, children in both training conditions of Study 2 struggled to use the hiding event in the model to infer the location of the full-sized toy in the adjacent room. Presumably, the change in context between the training (communication) and object retrieval task made it difficult for children to transfer learning. These results suggest that sensitivity to new symbolic relations may develop slowly in very young children because they require extensive support in order to make sense of novel symbolic relations.