Development of Representational Insight The Object Retrieval Task

Extensive research by DeLoache and her colleagues has examined young children's understanding of symbolic media using an object retrieval task.

Scale Models

In the scale model object retrieval task, young children are familiarized with a laboratory playroom and then shown a scale model of that room and its contents. Children's attention is drawn to the similarities between the room and the model of the room. Then, children watch as a toy is hidden in the scale model. They are subsequently told that the big toy is hiding in the same place in the big playroom and asked to go find it. DeLoache (1990) found that although 31- and 38-month-olds were both able to remember where the toy was hidden in the scale model, only 38-month-olds were able to use that knowledge to help them find the toy in the full-sized room. According to DeLoache, the younger children had difficulty using the placement of the toy in the model room to guide their searches for the large toy in the large playroom because they did not recognize the dual representational nature of the scale model. That is, they could not simultaneously recognize the model as a thing in and of itself and as a symbol of the larger room. Instead of using the scale model as a representation of the life-sized room, the salience of the model as a toy-like object caused the younger children to focus solely on the object status of the model. This is a particularly difficult representational task because the scale model's status as an object is so much more salient than its status as a representation of its referent.


Experiments by DeLoache and Burns (1993) examined young children's performance in the object retrieval task when they were to find hidden objects after viewing photographs of the hiding location. They found that 30-month-olds were able to use photographs to help them find the hidden toy, but that younger children were not successful. Younger children's failure to find the hidden toys using photograph information was attributed to a lack of understanding of "representational specificity" of photographs. That is, children under 30 months failed to understand that that the photographs representations a specific room at the current moment in time and not a generic room or a generic time. Because young children's initial experience with photographs typically consists of viewing generic photographs of objects in picture books, they interpret photographs as representations of generic, not specific, realities. It is not until approximately 30 months of age that children come to understand that photographs have both generic and specific referential properties.


Using the object retrieval task, Troseth and DeLoache (1998) found that 27-month-olds, but not 24-month-olds, were able to use location information represented on a video monitor to retrieve a hidden toy. The video monitor showed the experimenter hiding the toy in the adjacent room in realtime. As in the case of photographs, children's difficulty in this task can be attributed to their prior experience with the medium. Young children's initial experience with video is that of viewing videos and television programming for entertainment. They have very relatively little experience with viewing real-time television. Thus, they fail to realize the specific nature of the video representation, that is, that the information shown on the video monitor refers to a specific location in the adjacent room and that the information pertains to the present time. To support this view, one ingenious experiment tricked 24-month-olds into believing they were watching a live event through a window, when in fact, children shown a large video screen. When children believed that they were looking through a window (even though they were actually viewing a television monitor) their retrieval performance improved as compared to their performance when they knew they were looking at a video screen (DeLoache et al., 1996).

Thus, this line of research has uncovered important limitations in young children's understanding of symbolic media. DeLoache and her colleagues propose that children's experience with different media strongly influences the development of their understanding of the symbolic functions of media. Children's experience with model-like play sets makes it difficult for them to understand that models can also be used as symbols; experience with generic photographs makes it difficult to understand the use of photographs to depict specific referents; and experience with television as an entertainment media makes it difficult to for them to understand how it could provide information about real-world situations.

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