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Gallery 7: The emergence of graphic symbols and texts in pretend play

    © Copyright M. Worthington & E. Carruthers 2012

Isaac and the safe*

Isaac’s teacher Emma bought a small safe into the nursery to support Isaac’s interest and for other the children to investigate. A few days later she observed Isaac and Jayden’s pretend play, rich in mathematics…

After several days of complex play with their ‘safe’, Isaac decided to write down the number of blocks being taken from the block area, saying ‘one, two, three, gone! Gotta write it down and put it in the safe.’

In addition to his curving lines and scribble-marks Isaac had written a cross and a circle.

In supportive settings young children experience an explosion of interest in graphical symbols (Worthington and van Oers, 2015). Machón, (2013) highlights how between the ages of three to four years of age the children had begun to use specific graphical symbols, something that Isaac had begun to explore here.

Machón, A. (2013) Children’s Drawings: The Genesis and Nature of Graphic Representation. Madrid: Fibulas Publishers.

Worthington, M. and van Oers, B. (2015 / 2017) Children’s social literacies: Meaning making and the emergence of graphical signs and texts in pretence. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 17(2)

* For the full observation of this play narrative see: Worthington, M. 2015. Mathematics and the ecology of pretend play. In J. Moyles, Editor. The Excellence of Play. 4th Edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Taxonomy - this example

  • Written number and quantities: Early explorations with marks: attaching mathematical meanings.

CONTEXT: Pretend Play

Nursery: Isaac - 4 years 3 Months

The marks Isaac used for his ‘building plan’ (above) and the letter he wrote (on the right) appeared similar. For his map Isaac selected a large sheet of blue plastic that he could readily roll, (as he had seen his father – a builder - do), whereas he wrote his letter on a standard sheet of A4 paper.

These two examples highlight the decisions Isaac made in choosing the materials he would use for the two different genres. Materiality is an important aspect of multimodality (see for instance, Kress, 1997).

Kress G (1997) Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy. London: Routledge.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination: multimodal meaning making.

  • Early explorations with marks – attaching meanings

CONTEXT: Pretend play - shops

Nursery: Shereen - 4 years 4 Months

Engaged with using the till and money (real coins), Shereen invited her teacher Emma to her shop. Passing items she said ’Keep, Keep' as she gave each item to Emma. Shereen then began writing receipts, saying ‘Thank you, bye, bye, Come again. Here’s your receipt.’

Indicating a switch in her role, as shopper, and Emma as shopkeeper. Shereen then wrote a list using letters she knew including ‘H’ and ‘T’, saying as she wrote ‘Cheese burger, apples, bananas.’

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Exploration with symbols

CONTEXT: Spontaneous pretend play - shops

Nursery: Shereen and Verast, 3-4 years

Shereen told Verast ‘Shop is closed’ as she drew a single wavy line on her notepad. Turning the page she drew two, wavy lines similar to the first, then picked up a phone and spoke into it ‘Shop is closed’.

Verast sat down opposite Shereen again and opening the draw of the till, Shereen gave Verast a raffle ticket, and pretended to give her some money, saying, ‘Shop is open'.

Shereen then gave these pages from her notebook to Verast, describing the one on the left (with one wavy line) as 'Shop open' and the other as 'Shop closed' (with two wavy lines) - as she declared the shop - ‘closed’ and ‘open’.

Young children appear to have a fascination with contexts in which symbols showing a change of state such as Shereen’s. Other examples including Daniel's Sign 'Shop Closed' and Nursery - a spontaneous ball game also show children using alternative or contrasting symbols to indicate different (but related) meanings, indicating that conditions have altered.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Exploration with symbols

CONTEXT: pretend play outside

Tiyanni's House: Tiyanni 3 years 9 months

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3

Tiyanni and her friends picked up numbers (on cards), chatting about house numbers. A short while later they went into the gazebo in the garden: ‘It’s our house’ Tiyanni announced. Their teacher asked if it had a number outside, and Tiyanni replied ‘The number needs to go inside’ and wrote her numbers on the wall in chalk.

Pointing to the large, almost enclosed circle (on the right of figure 1) she explained, ‘That’s the number 8, and the other number’s ‘9’ (her friend Macey had earlier fished out cards with a ‘9’ and a ‘5’ to make her house number). Orna referred to her numbers as ‘89’ and ‘5’ (figure 2) and then to some of her symbols as a written note (figure 3), reading it as ‘Don’t forget to bring fruit to nursery.’ She had seen teachers write this message on the whiteboard on several occasions.

The children used a range of numeral- and writing-like signs to communicate their house numbers and a written message. Young children often use zigzag or wavy lines to represent writing (perhaps imitating adults’ handwriting). They often use crosses to convey diverse meanings in a range of communicative contexts such as drawing, maps, writing and mathematics. Tiyanni knows that different signs are used to represent different meanings.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Exploring symbols

  • Early written numerals

  • Numerals as labels

CONTEXT: pretend play outside

Ayaan's Television

Accompanied by Zalluyah, Ayaan told her ‘My baby need TV.’

Picking up a small piece of red paper, Ayaan made her signature ‘A’ along with intersecting lines. Returning inside the gazebo she hunted for tape and fixed her drawing to the gazebo wall.

Ayaan carefully placed the doll in a chair, Taking a strip of raffle tickets too, facing towards the ‘TV’ and pressing the raffle ticket to turn on the TV.

Ayaan appeared to have used the ‘A’ of her name, and other grid-like marks to signify a television. In choosing to use a book of raffle tickets as a remote control, Ayaan made connections between the raffle ticket's numerals and those on a remote control.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Exploring symbols

CONTEXT: pretend play

David’s shopping list: nursery 3 years

David’s curving, zigzagging marks are writing-like scribbles, beginning ‘around the age of three years when children notice and imitate adults’ linear arrangements of writing that are similar to their own scribbles’ (Worthington and van Oers 2015; Machón 2013).

David also added some vertical marks (lower left) and a circle, both separate graphic symbols ‘midpoint between graphic symbols and writing signs’ (Machón 2013: 322).

David read his shopping list as ‘‘I’m going shopping to get sausages, beans and peas’.

Machón, A. 2013. Children’s Drawings: the genesis and nature of graphic representation. Madrid: Fibulas Publishers.

Worthington, M. and van Oers, B. Children’s social literacy practices and the emergence of graphic symbols in pretence and imagination. Forthcoming.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Exploring symbols

CONTEXT: spontaneous pretend play

Shereen takes orders: nursery 4.6 years

Shereen collected some and dishes and stuffed inside a nearby cardboard box (using it as an oven). Telling her friends to sit down, she picking up a notepad and asked, ‘You like some food? I got soup, rice, chips?’

One of her friends said she’d like some rice and Shereen wrote a series of small spirals along the lines on the paper, adding ‘You like some drink?’ Her friend said that she would and Shereen again made similar spiral marks on her notepad. When the other child shook her head (not wanting to play), Shereen asked ‘You not very hungry?’ and turning to a new page wrote a series of ‘x x x x x’ across the page. She then took some bowls and handed one to the child saying ‘Your rice’.

Continuing her café play outside with friends, Shereen took more orders for food. She then used vertical lines as shorthand for numbers of items on a shopping list, counting each line up to 20.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

Written number and quantities:

  • Exploring symbols

  • Representing quantities that are counted

CONTEXT: spontaneous pretend play

Elizabeth, 4.0 years: ‘Who wants an ice cream?’

Elizabeth ran around the garden with two other children. One of them arrived at the gazebo and began to write ‘prices’ on a notebook. Elizabeth followed suit and drew a symbol. ‘That’s pounds’ (‘£’) she explained, then ‘Who wants ice cream?’ A child came towards her ‘My first customer’ she said.

Elizabeth has used a personal symbol that imitates something of the appearance of the symbol for ‘£’ on its side. From 3 – 4 + years children are becoming increasingly encultured into the symbolic written languages of writing and mathematics, making links with their home cultural knowledge and using signs and symbols in meaningful social contexts.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

Written number and quantities:

  • Exploring symbols

Gallery 7: The emergence of signs and texts in pretend play

CONTEXT: spontaneous pretend play

Bookings for the campsite (3-4 years)

Young children draw on their interests and cultural mathematical knowledge in their pretend play. Isaac often goes camping with his family, triggering this play episode.

Isaac and David were talking down the phone to each other. Isaac decided to use a diary as a ‘booking book’ for a campsite, explaining that two people were staying, and making two marks in the diary. Isaac then used the phone to take more bookings, telling David ‘one hundred million people are staying!

David said ‘I want to stay for two nights’. Isaac said, ’No. I’ll put you down for two million nights, but don’t worry - it’s only £1.00 a night’. Isaac then wrote it down in his ‘booking’ book - this time making many marks and David also took a diary and made his own symbols (circles and vertical lines). Their teacher Emma commented:

Isaac had the knowledge and personal experience about campsites and instigated the play, and the others went with his idea. This is so different from a themed play area since the children in the campsite play totally owned it and set it up and collected the things they wanted and needed. I got the diaries at our scrap-store and that has just sparked so many ideas for the children’s play.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

Written number and quantities:

  • Early explorations with marks: attaching mathematical meanings

  • Representing quantities that are not counted

  • Exploring symbols

CONTEXT: spontaneous pretend play

Ice-cream shops (3-4 years)

This example reveals the embedded nature of children’s mathematics. Ayaan was just beginning to explore mathematics in her play.

Shopping with her mum Ayaan knows a lot about paying for goods, and sees her dad count the money he takes each day from working as a taxi driver.

At home she loves helping to prepare ingredients and helps care for her siblings.

For two weeks Ayaan had been playing in the gazebo outside in the nursery garden, offering pretend ice cream through the window to children. Today when a child replied ‘Yes’, Ayaan answered ‘No left’, adding ‘I make more'. Then collecting stones and pretending to make ice cream, Ayaan asked Tariq if he wanted any. She passed him an imaginary ice cream, then pressed buttons on the till saying, ‘It’s 50 minutes.’ Soon after Ayaan drew dashes in a notebook without comment.

The next time Ayaan played ice cream shops she asked ’50 minutes please’. When a child offered ‘£1.00’ Ayaan replied ‘That’s £50 please.’

Ayaan’s confidence in speaking English had grown, and she often chose to initiate role-play with her peers. Playing ice-cream shops became a familiar context in which she explored mathematical ideas and developed friendships.

Taxonomy: Making meaning in social pretend play and imagination.

  • Written number and quantities: Early explorations with marks: attaching mathematical meanings

CONTEXT: spontaneous pretend play

Car park entry - Isaac and Oliver 3-4 years

This pretend play episode arose from Isaac’s interest and very detailed home cultural knowledge about swiping a plastic card to enter a car park, business cards related to his dad’s work, security gadgets and cameras. Knowing his interest, his teacher Emma brought several small safes into the nursery for the children to investigate.

Figure 1 Figure 2

Drawing rapid marks on a sticker, Isaac announced, ‘you need to have a business card to get in here. I’m fixing the gate so it has electric. You have to have a business card to swipe in. I don’t need one - I use my hands.’ Isaac gave a piece of paper to Oliver, ‘Here’s your business card.’ Isaac wrote more marks on a label, ‘this says ‘swipe here with your special code card' (figure 1).

As Oliver swiped his card Isaac noticed another child enter without one: he stuck a smaller sticker on the fence (to the right of the first) with scribble-marks on (figure 1), explaining, ‘this is the bell if you don’t have a sticker, someone can let you in. It says, ‘press here’. Someone will come and open the gate.’ He added a third sticker in the centre of the gate, ‘This is for lorries and deliveries - it opens automatically - it’s a camera’.

Lacking Isaac’s specific knowledge of car parks Oliver quietly listened and observed before deciding to participate. He made independent decisions to use dots followed by several ticks, explaining, ‘these are ticks. When there are 3 ticks you can go, when there are 2 you can’t go that way. I’ve made 2 ticks - that means you are not allowed. People allowed in that way’ (figure 2).

Using letters from his own and family members’ names, Oliver wrote his name on his sign ‘O, L, I’ to personalize and perhaps confirm his power, then wrote ‘E’ for Ellie (his sister) and ‘D’ for Daddy, before attached them to the fence (figure 2). Oliver was able to fully appreciate the power of signs when another boy followed his instruction (and sign) by walking where he was directed.

The children sometimes used scribble-marks as semantic ‘placeholders’ to denote specific meanings in their play, whereas in other child-initiated contexts in the nursery and at home the children used letters, drawings or other graphical signs. This suggests that such rapidly made marks allow the course of play to proceed uninterrupted. Matthews argues that ‘Far from being chaotic actions and random ‘scribblings’ children’s use and organisation of visual media exhibits semantic and structural characteristics from the beginning’ (1998: 90).

Taxonomy: Making and communicating meanings in social pretend play - graphicacy (drawing, maps and writing)
Written number and quantities: Early explorations with marks: attaching mathematical meanings

CONTEXT: Spontaneous Pretend Play

Entry Registers: Isaac, David and Jayden - 3-4 years

Isaac, David and Jayden (3-4 year olds) are by the door into the nursery, having decided to check people coming in and out. They have collected clipboards, paper, pens and a calendar, and use a range of marks and crosses.
Isaac uses vertical marks for people who come in and out, and an 'x'  - explaining, ‘That means you work here.’
After a period of time during which no one enters of leaves, Isaac grumbles,  ‘No one’s come in or out recently!’

Crosses are one of the first abstract symbols children choose to use and they use them in a wide range of contexts to signify many different meanings.

For more registers, see also:
Gallery 4: ‘Making Dinner Registers’ and Chloe’s Dinner Register.

Making meanings in pretence, imagination and role-play including drawing, maps and writing.
Written number and quantities - Representing quantities that are not counted; exploring symbols.

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