Using symbols: Developmental perspectives

David H Uttal*, Lei Yuan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The frequent and fluent use of symbols is a distinguishing characteristic of human thought and communication. Symbols free us from the bounds of our own direct experience and allow us to learn about the world from others. To use a symbol, children need to (1) understand the intention that led to the creation and use of the symbol, and (b) how the symbol relates to its referent. For example, to use a map, children need to know that it is intended to communicate spatial information, and how locations on the map correspond to locations in the world. In some cases, even very young children are capable of meeting both requirements. For example, infants quickly learn that people intend to communicate when they use words. Moreover, they quickly learn the meanings of many specific words and the objects or concepts that they stand for. In other cases, such as learning to use maps of large-scale space, children may struggle to understand what the symbol is intended to communicate and the specific relations between elements of the symbol and their referents in the world. Here we review the development of children's understanding of words, photographs, scale models, maps, and text. We consider when and how children gain insight into the communicative intent of each of these symbols and how they learn to establish connections between the symbol and what it represents. This review helps to integrate research on the development of children's understanding of a variety of symbol systems. For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website. Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-304
Number of pages10
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Psychology(all)


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