Playful Symbol Use With Three- to-Five Year Olds (page 3)
Between the ages of about three to five years of age, children learn to use symbols through play and fantasy. During this period—which Gardner (1991) called the symbolic period—children learn to understand and use language to ask for things, to tell others what they want, and to request information. They also use language for more expressive purposes, such as telling jokes, teasing, making up or retelling stories, role-playing, or developing friendships. In addition to words, children communicate in a number of other ways:
- Graphically, for example, through drawing or painting (such as the tadpole humans, houses, and trees described earlier), through using other two-dimensional media (e.g., collages, printmaking), or through working with three-dimensional art forms (such as sculpting with clay, constructing with boxes, or building with blocks)
- Dramatically, for example, through role play (taking on a role, such as pouring imaginary tea and eating imaginary biscuits while talking on the phone); body expression and gesture (movements of the hands, arms, shoulders, or full body that express or emphasize an idea or attitude); facial expressions (such as a grimace or frown); language (such as developing play characters and "scripts" of events); and the use of open-ended resources (such as placing a towel on the head to represent long hair, or wearing hat, caps, and other dressup props)
- Musically, for example, through composing or improvising (e.g., creating "soundscapes") using vocal effects and the timbre of musical instruments and uncoventional sound sources (e.g., shrill, fluid, hollow) and the expressive properties of singing and playing styles (e.g., flowing, calm, jerky, or energetic)
- Through movement and dance, for example, depicting a character, object, or scene from their imaginations or stimulated by another source, such as a story or book (e.g. "The Monster Romp" from Where the Wild Things Are), moving expressively to music, working out a set of movements for a dance, or using their bodies to represent an idea or feeling
Ability in visual media has now caught up to preschool/kindergarten children's capacity to tell a story, sing a song, create a dance, role play, and "read" a picture. They can use lines, space, shape, and color to construct a variety of visual concepts and create complex designs, and they understand that lines can stand for the edges of objects. They can draw, sculpt, and model recognizable forms and label their products accordingly. While drawing, painting, building with blocks or cardboard boxes, shaping clay, or creating collages, young children use visual images to symbolize objects and events. They imagine, fantasize, and act out thoughts and feelings while fashioning their worlds in the plastic domain. Gardner (1980), Golomb (1992), Goodnow (1977), Kellogg (1969), Matthews (1994a, b, 1997), Smith (1993), and Wright (2001b) provide a comprehensive description of the presymbolic and symbolic drawings that young children produce when becoming users of visual symbols. By the end of the third year, their prototypes of houses, animals, and people are now recognizable to adults. In addition, the "aggregates" (combinations of shapes) that were rehearsed when they were toddlers, such as the mandala, may be used for windows of a house or the eyes of a person.
The ability to represent objects and events visually releases a universe of graphic possibilities. However, for a number of years, children's visual depictions generally will remain schematic; in other words, children will incorporate the generic prototypical forms learned earlier and apply them to a range of instances. This is economical because these forms can represent members of a number of categories (e.g., the schema of a face can be incorporated into the "face" of a flower, the sun in the sky, or the head of an animal). With drawing experience and opportunities to view examples in the real or pictorial worlds, children begin to make discriminations within their schemata.
In musical composition, children in their preschool years are involved in personal modes of expression. Their increasing ability to make sound and develop technical skills using their voices and musical instruments allows them to explore and repeat long passages of music (e.g., steady pulse notes, scales, trills, and tremolos). These repeated musical passages are also forms of prototypes—they become their favorite or best examples of how to use sound for expressive and communicative purposes. For example, a child's use of the pitches in the first phrase of "Three Blind Mice" may be applied to a range of musical explorations, played at various speeds and volumes, for a range of expressive purposes and applications (e.g., slow and suspenseful, increasing in speed and volume as the emotion builds). Such sound explorations can also be inspired by or stimulate an encounter with other children who are dancing nearby and lead to music and dance play, where both aural and bodily-kinesthetic dimensions become integrated through group interaction. One child, for instance, who may be practicing a movement prototype of whirling in a circle, may ask another child to play "whirling" music, and a delightful music-dance "conversation" may develop.
Three- to five-year-old children do not always require realistic dramatic props to stimulate imaginative play. They often pretend that something is other than it actually is. For example, a length of white satin can be wrapped around the body to serve as a shawl, draped across a table to serve as a tablecloth, or spread across the floor to represent a stream. Similarly, a block of wood might represent a portable telephone or a miniature car, and a table might stand for a desk, a display counter for fruit, a garage, or a cage for an animal in a zoo.
The table, when used as a cage in a zoo, might unleash other symbolic forms of expression. For example, using their voices, musical instruments, and dance/movement, children might create sound stories that aurally depict a sequence of real or imaginary events, such as "going to the zoo." They might symbolize such an event through vocal effects, body movements, and gesture, becoming characters such as a tiger or other animals at the zoo. Often they use instruments for dramatic effect, like crashing cymbals and rumbling on a drum when a surprising moment occurs, like the unexpected roar of the ferocious tiger. Leading up to this surprise, they will build the suspense by crouching and creeping slowly and then suddenly stretch up on their toes with their arms raised above their heads and fingers rigid, as they prepare to pounce. Often they will repeat this episode several times, perfecting the effect and possibly modifying it to link with other components of the "going to the zoo" enactment, such as a "prowling growling tiger's dance."
Practice in both producing and perceiving symbols provides young children with the awareness that meaning and revealing may be derived from form. In other words, what children produce in the arts can help them make meaning about their thoughts, feelings, and problem-solving solutions that can be revealed to others. The young artists' products reflect self-expression, and often group expression, through the use of symbols—expressed visually, aurally, and bodily-kinesthetically—through thought, emotion, and action. As with toddlers, preschool children's artistic products are original, expressive, and aesthetically appealing.
© ______ 2003, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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