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"This is not a pipe", or is it? How children come to learn about symbolic representation.

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

This famous painting by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte is called "The Treachery of Images". In French, the words read "This is not a pipe".



At first glance, this painting is confusing. Because... well, it IS a pipe. However, a smug artist type with his glasses perched on the edge of his nose will rightly respond "no my dear, it is simply a painting of a pipe". However, obnoxious it might seem, this is exactly the point of this artwork. This image is is not a pipe in the same way a painting of a fire will not keep you warm or a photo of your face is not 'you'. This picture is not a pipe. It is not even a painting of a pipe. It is a digital rendering of a famous painting a Belgian man painted more than 90 years ago.

As adults, we often conflate representations of things with the thing itself. Children, however do not. This is in large part do to the fact that they are still learning the relationship between reality and its representation. Understanding what 'representation' is, and further understanding how we represent representations is what philosophers and psychologists call "metarepresentation".



Metarepresentation describes the fact that when we look at a representation of something (i.e., a drawing or painting) we also represent the thing itself in our mind. As such, metarepresentation also gives us the capacity to understand other's thoughts.

Metarepresentation also affords us the ability to think about thinking and therefore generate new knowledge or meaning by representing thoughts or concepts that are not noticed on a day-to-day basis. Algebra, sculpture, empathy, sarcasm and puns all rely on our human ability of metarepresentation.



Piaget studied the development of children's symbolic reasoning and determined that we go through two distinct phases in cognitive development in order to achieve adult-like metarepresentation. Between the ages of 2 and 4, children first understand the relationship between symbols and meaning, hence language begins to flourish during these years.

Next, sometime before 4 and 8 years, children master the ability to picture, remember, understand, and replicate objects in their minds that are not immediately in front of them. In other words, children can create mental images of objects and store them in their minds for later use.



These cognitive abilities are helpful as young children move through the world learning about and experiencing new things, places and people. This ability allows them to talk about their cousin who lives across the country, discuss or draw places they've visited, as well as create new scenes and creatures from their imagination. As they grow this ability becomes more complex and refined.

The imagination is at the core of so many of humankind's most magnificent achievements. These achievements would be impossible without our unique ability to think about thinking. However, in the words of Maria Montesorri “Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”

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