Conclusions

Given the importance of learning symbol systems, it makes sense to try to help children in as many ways as possible. The use of concrete objects has been an important tool in this effort. Although we have raised serious questions about the use of concrete objects in early childhood education, we do not believe that the use of concrete objects should be eliminated or even reduced. Concrete objects such as letter blocks or number magnets can help children to discriminate one symbol from another and can awaken their interest in reading and mathematics. Moreover, our recent work has demonstrated that concrete objects can provide a scaffold on which an understanding of more abstract relations can be built.

Thus we would never endorse a proposal to eliminate the use of concrete objects in early childhood education. Our concern is not with the general use of such objects but rather with how they are used. The problems that we have cited only apply when the concrete objects are substituted for instruction or when the focus of children's activity is exclusively on highly attractive concrete objects. In such a situation, children's attention centers on the objects themselves rather than on what the symbols are intended to represent. The desire to help children learn and to engage their interest by making objects interesting in their own right may at times be counterproductive. We advocate a balanced view, in which the disadvantages of using concrete objects are considered along with the advantages. Concrete objects are most useful when they are used to support or augment the learning of abstract concepts. They should not be used as substitutes for abstract representations.

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