Historical Background

The domains identified as relevant for understanding spatial-graphic representations—representation, space, and aesthetics—have important histories within developmental psychology. I next highlight past approaches and controversies within each.


Representations are the tools that enable the child to move from thinking and reasoning about the here and now, to thinking and reasoning about things that are not currently in view (e.g., a toy in the next room or a grandparent who visited last week), have never been in view (e.g., a new school), or could never be in view (e.g., a unicorn). Although there is little controversy that representation is central to cognition, there is considerable controversy about how early and in what form the ability to form and use representations emerges.

In a classic and broad theory of representational development, Piaget (1951) argued that infants' representational capacity develops only gradually. At first, infants interpret only indices. These are inherent parts of referents (e.g., smoke is an index of fire), and because they are not completely distinct from the referent, are not considered to be true representations. Piaget proposed that the true symbolic function develops gradually during the sensorimotor period (roughly the first two years of life). Infants first come to understand representations that are motivated by the referent (referred to as symbols, as in a picture of a cat), and then understand those connected to the referent by arbitrary assignment (referred to as signs, as in the word "cat"). Bruner (1964) proposed an expanded developmental progression, suggesting that children begin with action-based or enactive representations (as in representing a rattle with a shaking hand), then use visually-isomorphic images or iconic representations, and finally use arbitrary symbols such as words. Although their terminologies differ, Piaget and Bruner shared the view that the ability to understand representations is not inborn, and that there is an age-linked progression in the types and flexibility of representations available.

More recent work has suggested that the ability to create and access some kinds of representations is present extremely early. For example, even within a day or two of birth, infants have been found to imitate adults' facial actions, a finding taken to imply that infants encoded and stored and later retrieved some representation of the observed event (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Also taken as suggestive of babies' ability to form and use representations are demonstrations that information acquired from one sensory modality is extended to another. For example, 1-month-old infants given either a bumpy or smooth pacifier to suck (tactile modality) were found to prefer looking at the matching picture (visual modality) of that pacifier (Meltzoff & Borton, 1979). These and related recent empirical studies have resulted in some heated debates (e.g., see Haith, 1998; Mueller & Overton, 1998; Smith, 1999; Spelke, 1999) about whether there is true representation during infancy.

Once the focus is on toddlers or preschoolers, however, there is little question about the existence of representational thinking. By this age, the key questions concern whether representational systems undergo qualitative or merely quantitative development, what kinds of representational systems are available (e.g., numerical, linguistic, spatial), and whether young children are able to consider multiple (especially conflicting) representations simultaneously or in quick sequence (e.g., Zelazo, Mueller, Frye, & Marcovitch, 2003).

Another major research thrust has been aimed at identifying mechanisms that facilitate children's developing representational competence during and beyond the preschool years. For example, research has addressed the impact of parents' tendency to discuss objects, people, or events that are spatially or temporally distant (e.g., Sigel, 1978; Sigel & McGillicuddy-De Lisi, 1984), parents' guidance of their children's understanding of words and pictures (e.g., Gauvain, de la Ossa, & Hurtado, 2001; Snow & Ninio, 1986; Szechter & Liben, 2004), exposure to a bilingual environment (e.g., Bialystok & Martin, 2004), and experience with representational media such as videotape (e.g. Troseth, 2003). Researchers have also sought to catalogue children's emerging meta-cognitive understanding of specific representational systems and distinctions among them (e.g., Bialystok, 2000; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982).

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