Early Childhood Education

Symbolic Languages


One of the central tenets of sociocultural theory is the vital importance of symbols as they mediate relationships between the mind and the environment (Bruner, 1990; Kozulin, 1990). When educators speak of the symbolic languages of children they are referring to the ways in which children make visible, or represent, their ideas. A language may be defined by its uses: to express, to communicate, and to work things through. Talk, for example, may be used to make one’s thoughts and feelings known to the self and others (express and communicate). Talk is but one of many languages available to us. We can also express and explore ideas through graphic languages such as drawing, painting, sculpting with clay or wire, weaving, construction, and shadow, and through more temporal languages such as movement and music. Early Childhood educators are learning from Reggio Emilia that children are able to articulate and explore their most profound ideas best when they are able to represent those ideas in those many languages, the “one hundred languages of children” (Malaguzzi, 1998).

Though some call “paint” or “clay” or “drawing” a language, that is an incomplete, and therefore inaccurate, characterization. Paint as an entity is not a language, nor is drawing, wire, or clay. They are media only ... until the child uses them as symbolic languages ... to express, communicate, or figure things out. Examples of children using drawing as a language might be the five-year-old who draws her memory of the merry-go-round she rode at the amusement park the day before; the boy who is fascinated with airplanes draws what he knows about the different types of airplanes; the six-year-old who has been thinking about shadows draws a series of theories about how shadows work, beginning with her idea that all shadows occur in daylight and on the ground.

A child must know a medium well before it becomes a language for her. Children come to know a medium through many experiences with it. Often in early encounters with a medium a child explores, testing what the medium will do, how it feels, how it looks, and how it responds to her actions (learning the “affordances” of the medium; Forman, 1994). Such exploration might look like scribble. Or it might be more of a “formula” representation. For example, a child who knows how to draw houses well, who is comfortable drawing houses, and who feels no need at present to challenge herself when drawing houses might draw house after identical house after identical house as she learns a new type of pen, or she might translate this familiar subject into paint to explore the paint, and so forth. As the child learns what a particular medium will do, how it will respond to her actions upon it, and what it will allow her to do, she acquires proficiency, confidence, and understanding about the medium. Eventually we see her begin to use that medium to represent that which she does not yet know how to represent, or to explain her thinking about a particular idea through the medium. It is then that we might say the child is using that medium as a symbolic language. Such familiarity with media requires both frequent access to the media and time. This is why it often does not satisfy either child or teacher when a teacher asks a child to represent a new idea with an unfamiliar medium. Over time, as children come to know the media and to use them as languages they also learn to value the media as tools for making their ideas visible, discovering, for example, that some are better suited to representing certain ideas than others.

Children are full of ideas, theories about how the world works, and full of imagination. It is not only satisfying to represent those ideas, theories, and imaginings, but also vital to the learning process. When children represent an idea, either through reading, writing, or talking, through graphic media, or through more temporal media such as music and movement, their understanding of the idea grows. High school and college students take notes during lectures, partly so that they will have them as referents when studying. But the act of taking the notes itself ... representing what the professor is saying ... also supports the student’s making sense of what he is hearing. In the same way, every time young children draw, paint, sculpt, construct, and act out their ideas, they develop a deeper understanding of those ideas (as well, of course, as honing their proficiency with and control of the media). Understanding grows even further when children represent an idea in multiple languages. For example, to draw a chair one must consider angles, number of legs, and the size of the parts of a chair in relation to each other (the legs all reach the baseline, for example). But when trying to construct or sculpt a chair in three dimensions, one must also consider how the chair manages to stand. When a child represents a thing, he “defamil- iarizes” it—makes it new for himself, in a way. According to Giovanni Piazza, studio teacher (atelierista) in Reggio Emilia, this gives the child more images of the subject of her representation, and, he says, we want children to “have more images of one thing, a wealth of images” (Rabitti 1994). Symbolic representation also has a fundamental role in small-group project work. Often the foundation upon which such collaborative work rests is spoken language. Children pose their ideas, challenge each others’ ideas, negotiate point and counterpoint, make plans, and so forth—in words. However, sometimes words seem to be inadequate to the idea at hand. As Loris Malaguzzi points out, “graphic representation is a tool of communication much simpler and clearer than words” (1998, p. 92). Children might draw or otherwise represent graphically an idea that they have struggled to express verbally. They might draw to understand more completely the idea of another. While the act of representing an idea can help clarify it for the individual, the product of the representation can help others understand her idea, and it can support the development of a shared, larger idea.

Teachers can support children’s use of symbolic languages by doing the following:

• Providing good quality materials for representation. For example, paintbrushes in a variety of sizes and with a variety of brush tips can give children the control they need to make their ideas visible. Paper that both stands up to the rigors of different media and that makes the representation look its best is more likely to call to children than, for example, newsprint. Real potters’ clay (e.g., white or red low fire clay) supports more detailed representation than does, for example, play-dough.

• Making sure the media are accessible to the children as they need it. Teachers will want to keep in mind that children may need many, many experiences with a medium before they use it as a language. Many teachers store media in well-organized low shelves so that children can both find and reach what they need when they need it.

• Providing time for children to invest energy and emotion in their representation, and to navigate the problems they encounter as they work to make their ideas visible.

• Supporting children’s learning about representation directly. A child may have a desire to represent before he has the necessary techniques or control or perhaps even knowledge of the media to accomplish his goals. Without support the child may come to expect less of himself and resort to coping strategies that don’t necessarily help him learn to represent his ideas, for example choosing to draw only what he knows how to draw or throwing attempt after attempt away in frustration. A sensitive teacher can recognize the dichotomy for the child, work to help the child make his idea visible, and even help him develop strategies for the next time around.

• Displaying children’s representation prominently and with care, sending the message, “Your work is important to us all.” Teachers can also make children’s representation public by taking it to a class meeting, inviting others to seek out the artist for advice if they would like to try something similar, thereby affirming the artist and inspiring his classmates.

• Supporting each child’s establishment of a “satisfaction bar,” and the disposition to persevere until she is satisfied that she (or the group with which she is working) has made her/their mental image visible. The teacher’s response to the child’s work can send a strong message. Because one goal is to encourage children to revisit their work, teachers might respond with “What’s happening here?” rather than evaluative comments about the child’s work and “Are you satisfied?” rather than, for example, “Are you finished?” Noticing when the child needs adult support for technique, tools, or moral support also helps the child sustain effort toward making her idea visible.

• Encouraging the flow of ideas in the classroom. As children represent their ideas teachers can encourage others inspired by those ideas, note the evolution of the idea as its representation flows from one child to another, and pay attention to the way such ideas become part of the shared language of the classroom. For example, Mary draws a king and queen. Nearby Charles and Jamal, inspired by Mary’s drawing, begin to make paper crowns. Others join them. The teacher notes this flow of ideas and makes the children’s work public in a class meeting. Later that day the teacher notices that a small group is making a castle for kings and queens on the block platform. King-and-queen play draws in more children over many days, and soon it becomes part of the group’s shared language and a way of sustaining relationship for the children. All this happens in a classroom where children are encouraged to represent their ideas, have learned how to do so, and where the flow of ideas from one child to another is treasured.

Further Readings: Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Kozulin, Alex (1990). Vygotsky’s psychology: A biography of ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Malaguzzi, Loris (1998). History, ideas, and basic philosophy, An interview with Lella Gandini. In Edwards Carolyn, Gandini Lella, and Forman George, eds., The hundred languages of children. The Reggio Emilia approach—advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corp., pp. 49—97; Forman, George (1994). Different media, different languages. In Lilian Katz and Bernard Cesarone, eds., Reflections on the Reggio Emilia approach. Urbana, IL: ERIC, pp. 37-46; Rabitti, Giordana (1994). An integrated art approach in a preschool. In Lilian Katz and Bernard Cesarone, eds., Reflections on the Reggio Emilia approach. Urbana, IL: ERIC, pp. 51-68; Cadwell, Louise (2003). Bringing learning to life: The Reggio approach to early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella, and Forman, George, eds. (1998). The hundred languages of children. The Reggio Emilia approach—advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corp; Gandini, Lella, Hill, Lynn, Cadwell, Louise, and Schwall, Charles (2005). In The Spirit Of The Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. New York: Teachers College Press; Hendrick, Joanne, ed. (2003). Next steps toward teaching the Reggio way: Accepting the challenge to change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. The Hundred Languages of Children: Catalogue of the Exhibit (2nd ed.). 1997. Reggio Children; Topal, Cathy (1992). Children and painting. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc. Vecchi, Vea, and Guidici, Claudia, eds. (2004). Children, art, artists: The expressive languages of children, the artistic language of Alberto Burri. Reggio Emilia: Reggio Children.

Pam Oken-Wright