Symbolic Representation in Early Years Learning

What is Symbolic Learning

Play in the Early Years can often appear as random or without a goal, when in contrast, play is precisely the means through which young learners develop their understanding of the world around them. Most notably, these understandings are met through the development of symbolic representations. Symbolic representations are a foundational component of Early Years Learning at Silicon Valley International School (INTL), where our diverse team of educators have the great distinction of being able to share ideas of best practices from across the globe, and with a deep mix of pedagogical backgrounds and expertises in Montessori, Reggio Emilia, IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) and a wide range of national accreditations. The common thread that binds the approach is underpinned in the development of symbolic representations.

Symbolic Learning & Literacy

Language, in its various symbolic forms, is intrinsic to learning; it is the primary system that supports cognition and the associated development of creative and critical thinking faculties. Research (Clark & Rumbold, 2006; Sullivan & Brown, 2015) shows that one of the single greatest predictors of academic success is a child’s enjoyment and love for literacy. Ensuring that young learners see themselves as “readers,” “writers,” “authors,” and “illustrators” is a hefty goal and a prioritized one. For example, children are encouraged to explore mark-making and experiment with the variations and significance of these prints-a precursor to formal writing that may look like simple lines and marks on a variety of writing surfaces. They are however, constructing meaning through their interactions with these written forms - building an innate understanding that the marks are symbols and symbols convey meaning.

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Symbolic Learning & Math

In order to understand mathematical concepts in a wide-range of contexts, children must first build the knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Mathematics is, in and of itself, a language of expression - a lens through which patterns are identified, items are categorized, measurements are estimated, shapes are manipulated and endless problems are posed and solved. Early Years learners develop these mathematical skills and capabilities daily through play and exploration.

How Early Years Teachers Support Symbolic Exploration and Expression

The bilingual and multicultural classrooms at INTL create a unique linguistic and cultural profile, forming a base through which all learning occurs. The environments created are rich in language, providing flexible spaces: for children to experiment with oral language in role play and shared dramatic exploration, stations for mark - making and writing development, centers to explore physical movement, loose parts to explore imaginatively and in endless iterations, and inviting corners with bilingual print in various forms to engage “readers.” Children are provided with agency in their access to materials, creating a sense of ownership over the spaces and a confidence in the importance of their voices in co-constructing the learning.

Through the fine-tuned craft of tactical listening and observations, teachers effectively weave literacy and math practices into the daily experiences of young learners, discovering the symbolic language forms of their unique classrooms and then coupling these with the language strengths and relative interests of their learners. Documenting these profiles and then using them to plan and create lessons and environments that expand and challenge student’s language capabilities.

Teachers prioritize play as the primary modality through which they engage with math and literacy concepts in authentic and meaningful ways. To name a few: viewing play as a literacy-rich and numeracy-rich experience, planning authentic inquiry- based investigations, using stories as an opportunity to explore math concepts and problems in context, creating opportunities to make marks in a variety of ways, provide ongoing opportunities to use symbols, use mathematical language to describe the world and immerse children in a rich oral language environment (PYP: From Principles into Practice).