The Scale Model Task

Our task (DeLoache, 1987) for studying symbolic development is quite simple: We ask young children to use a scale model to find a hidden toy. Usually, the model and the room look very much alike except for size; the walls are the same colors, and the furniture in the model and the room are upholstered with the same fabric. Moreover, there is a high degree of spatial similarity as well. All of the objects in the model are usually placed in the same relative spatial positions as in the room.

We begin by explaining the task and by orienting children to the relation between the model and the room. First, the experimenter points out the two toys that will be hidden. One toy, a miniature dog, is labeled "Little Snoopy"; the second toy, a full-size stuffed dog, is labeled "Big Snoopy." The experimenter then demonstrates the correspondences between the model and the room. The experimenter says, "This is Big Snoopy's big room; Big Snoopy has lots of things in his room." The experimenter then names each of the furniture items. Next, the experimenter points to the model and says, "This is Little Snoopy's little room. He has all the same things in his room that Big Snoopy has." The experimenter then labels each of the furniture items again and highlights the correspondence between each item in the model and the corresponding item in the room. The experimenter carries each item from the model into the room. The miniature furniture item is held next to its counterpart in the room, and the experimenter says, for example, "Look—this is Big Snoopy's big couch, and this is Little Snoopy's little couch. They're just the same."

Next, the experimenter attempts to communicate that there is a relation between actions in the model and actions in the room. For example, the experimenter tells the child that "Big and Little Snoopy like to do the same things. When Big Snoopy sits on his chair, Little Snoopy likes to sit on his chair, too." The experimenter also illustrates the correspondence by placing the toys in the appropriate positions.

The test trials follow immediately after the orientation. On each of the test trials, the experimenter first hides the toy in one of the hiding locations in the model. The experimenter calls the child's attention to the act of hiding, but not to the specific hiding location, by saying, "Look, Little Snoopy is going to hide here." The child is told that an assistant is going to hide Big Snoopy in the same place in the big room.

The experimenter and child then enter the room, and the child is asked to find Big Snoopy. On each trial, the experimenter attempts to remind the child of the relation between the model and the room by saying, "Remember, Little Snoopy is hiding in the same place as Big Snoopy." If the child cannot find the toy, he or she is encouraged to continue searching at other locations, and the experimenter reminds the child again that the toy is in the "same place" as the other toy. Increasingly explicit hints are provided until the toy is found, but a search is counted as correct only if the child finds the toy in the first location that he or she searches.

After the child finds the toy on each trial, he or she is taken back to the model and is asked to find the miniature toy. This search provides a memory check that is critical to interpreting any difficulties that children may have in finding the toy in the room. If the children are able to locate the miniature toy in the model, then difficulties that they encounter finding the toy in the room cannot be attributed to simply forgetting where the toy is in the model. Instead, poor performance reflects a failure to appreciate that the location of the miniature toy in the model (the symbol) can be used to find the larger toy in the room (the referent).

Several aspects of this task and of our results are important in regard to the role of concreteness in children's insight into symbol-referent relations. First, and most importantly, the symbols involved in the task are highly concrete. The model itself, and the furniture in the model, are tangible, three-dimensional objects. Each one is both a real object and a symbolic representation of something other than itself.

Second, successful performance requires that the child comprehend and exploit a symbolic relation—the relation between the model and the room. To solve the task, the child must understand that the location of the toy in the model specifies the location in the room. The concreteness of the model is useful to children only if it helps them understand the abstract stands-for relation between the model and the room.

Third, children are required to solve a seemingly familiar task (searching for a hidden toy) in a novel way. Typically, when young children search for hidden objects, they rely exclusively on direct experience; like adults, they often search where they have last seen an object. To solve our task, how ever, children have to adopt a totally new strategy that involves relying exclusively on information from the symbol.

Two sets of results from our research on children's use of scale models are very relevant to understanding the effects of concreteness on cognitive development. First, young children's understanding of the model is quite fragile. Children have trouble initially understanding the relation between the model and the room, and even after they do, they can easily lose sight of this relation. Second, the concreteness of the model may actually contribute to the fragility of children's understanding of the model-room relation. The concrete nature of the model may even make it more difficult for young children to use it as a symbol than a less concrete object, such as a photograph. In the next two sections we review both aspects of children's understanding of scale models.

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