Research On The Effects Of Playing With Concrete Objects On Childrens Understanding Of The Symbolic Properties Of Letters And Numbers

The discussion thus far of the influences of playing with concrete objects on children's understanding of educational symbols has been theoretical. We have suggested that there are direct links between our earlier research on concrete models and the challenges that children face in coming to understand educational symbols. We are now putting these ideas to the test. In recent research supported by the U.S. Department of Education, we have specifically investigated how playing with concrete objects affects children's understanding of the symbolic properties of letters and numbers. This is the first study to address directly how interaction with concrete objects affects children's understanding of how letters and numbers can be used as symbolic representations.

Separate studies were conducted to investigate children's understanding of letters and numbers, and we therefore refer to the studies as the letter and number studies. In both studies, we tested children who were just turning 4 (M age = 47.4 months) and children approximately 6 months older (M age -53.5 months). The research took place in the children's homes. The researchers visited the children's homes three times to administer assessments or to demonstrate activities that children and parents could perform with traditional objects or concrete letters or numbers.

The first assessment provided baseline information regarding children's knowledge of letters or numbers and was based in part on subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson tests of preschool achievement or the Test of Early Mathematics Ability (TEMA) (Ginsburg & Baroody, 1990). We also included several measures of children's understanding of the symbolic properties of letters and numbers. The most important, the box labeling task, was adapted from Hughes (1986). It required that children use letters or numbers to keep track of the contents of three metal tins. In the letter study, we placed different toy animals (bear, duck, and frog) in the tin boxes; in the number study, we placed different quantities of paper "cookies" in the boxes. In both cases, the children were asked to "make something that will help [them] to remember what is in the box." This task gives children the opportunity to construct a symbolic representation to facilitate memory. The nature and quality of the representations that they construct can shed light on their conceptions of the process of representation and the symbolic properties of letters and numbers (see Deloache, Simcock, & Marzolf, 2004; Eskritt & Lee, 2002; Hughes, 1986; Marzolf & DeLoache, 1994; Munn, 1998).

Importantly, we asked children to complete the tasks twice, once with crayons and once with magnet letters or numbers. Half the children in both the letter and number studies completed the task with the magnets first; the remainder completed the task with the crayons first.

At the end of the first testing session, we left a set of toys for the children to play with in the days between the sessions, and we demonstrated the games that children and parents could play. Children in the control group were assigned randomly to play with traditional toys and objects. For example, they blew bubbles with a bubble wand, they made simple jewelry with beads, and they played a simple basketball game with a suction-cup hoop and a sponge ball. Children in the experimental group were asked to play similar games but to use toy letters or numbers as the toys. For example, these children blew bubbles with letters (e.g., o and e) or with numbers (e.g., 6, 8, or 9). Likewise, they played basketball with letters and numbers. The parents were asked to encourage their children to play the different games, to keep a log of how often they played, and to take photographs of what they made with the toys or symbols, such as jewelry, towers, etc.

Approximately 5 to 7 days later, the experimenters returned to the children's homes. They did not administer tests or assessments at this second visit. Instead, they demonstrated a second set of games that the children could play during the next week and left the appropriate materials for these new games with the parents. The demonstrations helped to ensure that the children understood the games that we were asking them to play.

The researchers returned to the homes a third and final time a week later, to administer the final assessments, which included most of the tests the children had taken at the first session. By administering the tests both before and after children played with the toys or the symbolic objects, we were able to assess the effects of treating symbolic objects as toys on children's understanding of the symbolic properties and basic knowledge of letters and numbers.

For the most part, children's performance was not affected by the play activities; the children performed comparably, regardless of whether they played with toys or, with letters or numbers. Thus playing with the concrete objects neither helped nor hurt children's performance, either on the tests of symbolic knowledge or on the basic achievement tests (e.g., the Woodcock-Johnson preliteracy tests).

There was, however, an interesting effect of the type of objects (crayons or magnets) with which the children performed the box labeling tasks. First, in both studies, children performed better with the magnets than with the crayons. More specifically, they often placed the correct magnet on the box to represent the stuffed animal or the quantity of cookies contained within. In contrast, when using the crayons, the children were less likely to produce symbolic representations. For example, some of the children made drawings that seemed to have little discernible relation to the contents of the boxes. There was, however, evidence of transfer from using the magnets to using the crayons. Children who performed the box labeling task with the magnets first were more likely to use the crayon in a symbolic manner, such as to write a letter or number. Thus using the magnets not only helped the children perform better with the magnets; it also facilitated their performance with the crayon.

We believe that using the magnets in a symbolic fashion provided a basis for transfer to the crayon task. The children who performed the task first with the magnets were now more likely to approach the same task with the crayon as a form of symbolic representation. In other words, the magnets provided a scaffold that allowed children to use their nascent knowledge of symbolic relations. Four-year-olds possess some knowledge of the relation between letters and text, but they are unlikely to use this knowledge spontaneously (Bialystok, 1992; Bialystok & Martin, 2003). The magnetic letters or numbers gave the children the opportunity to use their knowledge of letters or numbers. Using the magnets as symbols then provided a basis for transfer to the more challenging crayon task.

These results are consistent with our theoretical perspective on the development of symbolic reasoning, particularly the dual-representation hypothesis. Simply playing with the concrete objects was not helpful, but using concrete objects in a symbolic way did improve performance. Several lines of research have already established that performing a symbolic task successfully can promote symbolic thinking in a more difficult domain. For example, DeLoache and colleagues showed that experience in using a scale model helped children to use a symbol that they typically would not be able to use, a map (Deloache et al., 2004; Marzolf & DeLoache, 1994). We believe that the magnetic letters or numbers provided a similar basis for transfer and thus helped children use the crayon in a symbolic manner.

In summary, our results do provide evidence that using concrete objects can facilitate children's symbolic thinking. But it is very important to note that it is symbolic behavior with the concrete objects, and not simply playing with them, that provided the basis for the facilitative effect of the concrete objects. The concrete magnets facilitated children's symbolic thinking specifically because they helped the children to think about letters and numbers. Thus concrete objects can facilitate symbolic thinking; they are not a substitute for it.

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