May 2, 2005

Prof Discusses Symbolic Play

Print More

On Friday, Prof. Linda Smith, psychology, India University, presented a lecture entitled, “Symbolic Play, Early Word Learning, and the Perception of Shape.” This lecture was part of the Gibson speaker series in memory of Eleanor J. Gibson and James J. Gibson, two professors of psychology at Cornell.

Smith’s lecture explained the correlation between theories of object recognition and symbolic play. She said that most researchers do not think these two ideas relate, but she thinks they “are deeply connected.”

“Learning object names changes the way we perceive shape,” which leads to actions and symbolic play, said Smith. Smith went on to explain the difference between pretend play and symbolic play. In pretend play, “children recognize an object for what it is.” However, in symbolic play, “children use the object for something different than what it really is,” for example a child could use a banana as a phone.

“Symbolic play is considered a very important developmental phenomenon,” said Smith. It predicts language development and impairment. For example, if a child engages in symbolic play, the parents should not be worried if the child fails to speak at the age he is supposed to first talk. This idea is important with autistic children, because engagement in symbolic play is a marker of how far they will go, said Smith.

Smith related symbolic play to word recognition. She said that they both stand for something because with language, “words stand for ideas.” Smith then spoke about several experiments she had conducted, most of which split the test subjects into two groups: infants with knowledge of under one hundred object names, and infants with knowledge of over one hundred object names.

In the first experiment, Smith discovered that “children with a limited vocabulary do not recognize shape caricatures at all.” Shape caricatures are three-dimensional objects with similar geometrical components to lifelike shapes, except they are painted gray and are a simpler version. Smith also discovered that “slightly more advanced children recognize the shape caricatures nearly perfectly.”

“Could learning of object names be driving developmental changes?” questioned Smith. She answered her own question saying, “lexical learning may be both a cause and a consequence.” The fact that late talkers do not recognize the shape caricatures is a pattern consistent with the idea that knowing object names is a critical factor in the development of shape perception.

Smith shared other findings, such as that “teaching children to attend to shape when naming objects accelerates the rate at which new object names are acquired.” She also said that symbolic play is a predictor of early word learning because it is a product of early word learning.

In the final experiment Smith discussed, she shared evidence indicating “our use of objects alters how we perceive their shapes.”

“These results suggest to me that we might perceive chairs differently than we do if we used them for a different purpose than we do,” said Smith.

Smith’s experiments show that the amount of vocabulary infants have makes a difference in their consequent development and that perceived shape is a developmental product. Mike Goldstein, psychology professor at Cornell and former student of Smith, said that Smith’s work is “reminiscent of Eleanor Gibson’s views on perceptual learning.”

“Gibson was very interested in the role of word learning and perception,” Goldstein said. He went on to say the Smith’s research indicates that much of the real work of development is in perception.

“Having learned about Linda Smith in my developmental psychology class, it was really interesting to hear her speak and discuss her research,” said Allison Katz-Mayfield ’07, a student majoring in psychology.

“The lecture gave me a better understanding of the research we had talked about in class and how the experiments are actually conducted,” said Katz-Mayfield.

Smith concluded by saying, “I think the story that I’ve told you is what development is like more generally.” Each thing in a child’s past changes the child, making something different and something more than what we began with, she said.

Archived article by Rachel Nayman
Sun Staff Writer