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Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
P. O. Box 400400, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400
434-243-3577  |


    My primary area of research is early cognitive development, especially the development of symbolic functioning.  There is no domain of development more important than mastery of the various symbols and symbol systems used for communication.  My research has focused on the origins of children’s understanding of symbolic artifacts, such as pictures, models, and replica objects.  

    I have proposed that the exploitation of symbolic objects requires dual representation:  One must perceive and mentally represent both the object itself and, at the same time, one must represent the relation between the object and what it stands for.  Achieving dual representation is a formidable challenge for very young children.  Symbol-referent relations that seem simple and obvious to adults are neither simple nor obvious to young children, in large part because they focus too much on the object itself to the neglect of its relation to its referent.

    I have found early symbolic development to be a fascinating area in which to do research.  Often, I have found results that surprise and intrigue not only me, but other researchers and parents.  Parents of 2-1/2-year-olds are amazed when their child fails the scale model task.  Children of this age watch an experimenter hide a miniature toy in a model of a room, and are told that the experimenter will hide a larger version of the toy in the “same place” in the room itself.  Nevertheless, they have no idea where to find the large toy.  Similarly, parents of 9-month-olds have been surprised at the extent to which their infants try to treat pictures of objects as if they were real objects.  

    More surprising of all is the phenomenon that we are currently documenting.  Toddlers often make we call scale errors — they try to treat a miniature, replica object as if it were its larger counterpart.  For example, they attempt to sit on tiny chairs and get their feet into toy cars.  The difference in scale between the child’s own body and the target object is so great that one cannot watch the effort without amusement and amazement.  More importantly, one cannot watch it without wanting to figure out what psychological mechanisms account for this extraordinary phenomenon.  You can see clips of scale errors by going to my lab website:  click on Child Study Center above.

    This and other research that I and my students and colleagues have conducted is leading to a richer picture of how very young children start the process of becoming symbol minded.  It is a much more complex and difficult — and more intriguing — developmental story than most of us expected.