Steve Wozniak, the famous tech innovator and co-founder of Apple Inc., said a few things in his recent interview that were controversial. The Indian news media and twitterati immediately focused upon his comments on Indian education not promoting creativity. Naturally, there were a few people who felt offended by his comments, while others agreed with him. Well, this blog is not about the creativity (or the lack thereof) debate!
But there was something else that Steve said in the same interview, which seems to have escaped the notice of everyone. Steve in the interview was asked about the importance of coding and if coding should be taught to young children. Steve’s answer to that question was quite interesting. He said while coding is important, it should NOT be taught to children below the age of 12 years. The reason he mentioned is that children’s cognitive abilities do not develop ‘symbolic reasoning’ until that age. And without adequate ‘symbolic reasoning’ abilities, both algebra and coding cannot be learnt. Is Steve right?
So, what exactly is this symbolic reasoning that Steve talked about? Symbolic thought refers to the ability to represent people, objects, events and entities using symbols and images. As adults, it is difficult for us to notice that almost everything that we use for communication, is a symbol! When we write the number ‘5’ on a piece of paper or on an excel sheet, it is, in fact, a ‘symbol’ that represents the quantity (or position) five. Similarly, the letter ‘D’ is a symbol that represents the sound ‘Daa’. Language and mathematics are both examples of complex symbolic systems. We, adults, have become so accustomed to these symbols that they do not feel like abstract entities anymore for us. This happens because we have been familiarizing (and learning) about these symbols over many years. We do not even realise that when we encounter these symbols, our brains are decoding them and deciphering the meanings behind the symbols, within a fraction of a second. It only when we encounter an unfamiliar set of symbols (say the Russian alphabet or numbers in Mandarin) do we realise this fact.
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Symbolic Reasoning and Child Development
But for children who are trying to make sense of the world around them, it takes them a while to understand the link between these symbols with the meaning or concept that they represent. For very young children (below 2 years of age), the reality around them is what they understand. For example, if there is a dog in their sight, for the child there exists a dog. But if the dog were to go around the corner and leave their direct line for sight, the dog would not exist for the child. This is because the children at this tender age cannot create mental images of objects and store them in their memory effectively.
One of the pioneering child developmental scientists, Jean Piaget, theorized that symbolic skills start developing around the age of 2 onwards. Between the ages of 2 to 4, the children enter a developmental stage called ‘Symbolic Function Substage’. It is in the age that the child begins to develop rudimentary skills of symbolic reasoning. They begin to acquire skills visualize, remember, understand and even reproduce objects that are NOT in front of them, using their mental images of the objects that they formed in their mind.
In fact, whatever we see on the screen of electronic gadgets are also symbols. They are not reality, they represent reality. And because symbolic skills are underdeveloped in young children, they tend to have poor learning outcomes if they use the learning and educational apps (and DVDs) that are in the market. One of the reasons for AAP’s (American Academy of Pediatrics) guidelines on limiting screen time for children in this age group is lack of symbolic skills in children.
What can you do to enhance Symbolic Skills in your Child?
Since we are a website catering to early childhood, we look at this question from the perspective of children in the age group of 1.5 to 6 years. Here are some suggestions:
- Be patient. As indicated by research, children start to develop symbolic skills from around the age of 2 years. Therefore, there is no point in rushing things.
- Symbolic skills are deeply tied to language development of children. Therefore, focusing on language development will naturally enhance the child’s symbolic skills. Talking with your children at this stage is crucial.
- Pretend Play (also called Symbolic Play) is a great way to enhance symbolic skills. Encouraging pretend play activities have been noted to have many other long-term benefits as well.
- Encouraging painting and drawing will also benefit the child and help enhance its skills of imagination and representation.
- Avoid Electronic Gadgets. They simply kill creativity and numerous other developmental problems have been documented.
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In conclusion, we would like to say that Steve Wozniak is right in pointing out the symbolic reasoning as an essential precursor for learning coding (and even algebra). But are there are pre-coding or early coding skills that you can focus on? Well, more on coding and children in our subsequent blogs.
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