Investigating the development of cognitive symbolic representation and gestural communication

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Simon Child


In this thesis, I explore the ongoing development of symbol use in three domains: pretend play, speech and gestures. In chapter 1, the specific behavioural manifestations of symbol use in these domains are identified and previous literature that has explored the cognitive underpinnings of these abilities is discussed, with a particular focus on children's social cognition. In chapter 2, I review previous research that has sought pairwise relations between these abilities and the theoretical perspectives that have been utilised to explain these relations. In chapter 3, I introduce the four pertinent research questions that emerged from the previous review of the current literature, and provide an overview as to the methods adopted to address these issues. Chapters 4 to 6 constitute three papers designed to explore and evaluate children's symbol production in a sample of preschool children in pretend play speech and gestures. For the first paper, 38-40 month old children were given a battery of standardised measures to assess their symbolic capacities while controlling for non-verbal abilities. These data were analysed for concurrent relations between symbolic capacities. The second paper extends these concurrent relations longitudinally, by giving the children the same battery of measures six and twelve months after initial testing. Correlational and multiple regression analyses were used to assess the potential predictive relations between these measures, and whether there is a changing relation between these symbolic domains over developmental time. The third paper investigates children's iconic gesture production in further detail, by evaluating whether children aged 44-46 months incorporate the iconic gestures they observe an adult perform into their own descriptions of a novel object.Taken together, the results indicate a changing relation between the three symbolic measures of interest during the preschool years. The present findings suggest that both pretend play and gesture production are mediated by speech, but in different ways. It was also found that children appear to incorporate the gestures they observe into their own descriptions of objects but this uptake is dependent on the properties of the gesture itself. In the final chapter, these findings are discussed in relation to previous theoretical notions that place pretend play, speech and gestures as manifestations of an underlying symbolic system. I also discuss the enduring relation between these three abilities and how the pattern of predictive relations found in the present thesis can be explained. Furthermore, I discuss the ontogenesis of symbolic gesture production in children, specifically how children may use the gestures of others as a guide to their own gesture production. Finally I outline some limitations of the present research, and indicate potential avenues for future study.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2012