"This person needs help!" says Tamara into a long box she is using as a walkie-talkie. Sonja replies, "I'll be right there!" into her hand "phone" as she mimes jumping into her ambulance and driving to the scene.
The development of abstract or symbolic thought is characteristic of the kindergarten years. You see children do this almost every day in their dramatic play as they use objects to represent other things or make movements to represent a more complex action such as driving an ambulance. When they are doing this, they are learning how to use symbols. Symbolic play is the ability to take on a mental image of something that is not there, to substitute one object for another, or mime an object when no prop is available. Developing an understanding of symbols is essential to reading and math because it enables children to recognize that letters and numbers represent something.
Abstract Thinking and Dramatic Play
Young children begin to develop abstract thinking skills through their pretend play. In the kindergarten years, children's ability to pretend is taken to a high level of abstraction. They imaginatively use a simple object to represent something, and try on a variety of symbolic roles.
This ability to pretend with objects and use them symbolically assists children in all areas of the curriculum. For example, kindergartners learn that the numeral six stands for six things and begin to learn how to add and subtract these symbols. This abstract mathematical skill eventually grows into the very abstract understandings of algebra and calculus.
The Road to Reading and Writing
The same can be said about reading and writing. Abstract thinking is essential in order to use the symbol system we know as the alphabet. They are gaining an understanding that drawings and lines can represent an object, thought, or word. This leads to 5-year-olds experimenting with using scribbles and shapes to draw and "write." When children "read" these lines and scribbles to you, they are using their own symbol system to represent their thoughts. The amazing thing is they often can read these scribbles over and over again in exactly the same way.
Strong language skills are essential to abstract thinking — and kindergartners are often very verbal. They're able to explain their thinking and can expound on their ideas in great detail.
As they share books, for example, children can imagine scenes that are not even in the books and can suggest possible new endings or sequels to the story. It takes a high degree of abstract thought to be able to envision things that are not there and then verbalize those thoughts. During this stage of development, children enjoy creative-thinking activities such as brainstorming all the ways to use a familiar object, or using simple objects for telling a story.
Abstract Thinking and Problem Solving
Learning to think abstractly is an important component of developing problem-solving skills. By kindergarten, children become more adept at thinking about a solution to a problem without actually trying it out. They're now able to imagine and think through a problem and its solution with less hands-on experience. The ability to imagine a problematic situation and possible solutions allows children to problem solve without having to engage in cause-and-effect experiments.
Moving Toward Math and Science
During what Jean Piaget defined as the preoperational stage (usually from 2 to 6 years), children are on a "search for representation." They are learning how to move from the concrete to the abstract. That is why it's important to introduce simple graphs and drawings as ways to represent a hands-on science experiment or math experience. This growing skill not only allows children to apply what they have learned (and to demonstrate their understanding) but also invites them to move to higher levels of abstract thinking.
What You Can Do:
- Add abstract props to the play area. The more abstract the prop, the more symbolic the play. Consider adding many different size boxes, PVC piping and joints, scarves, and sheets.
- Invite children to create their own symbol system. Children may like to create an independent set of symbols to represent familiar words, names, and directions.
- Take field trips and tie them to representational activities such as re-enactment, charting, and writing.