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Symbolic Thought

Symbolic thought is the representation of reality through the use of abstract concepts such as words, gestures, and numbers. Evidence of symbolic thought is generally present in most children by the age of eighteen months, when signs and symbols ("signifiers") are used reliably to refer to concrete objects, events, and behaviors ("significates"). The hallmark of symbolic thought is language, which uses words or symbols to express concepts (mother, family), abstract references to transcend concrete reality (comfort, future), and allows intangibles to be manipulated (mathematical symbols). According to Jean Piaget, imitation plays an important role in the development of symbolic thought because the child is able to imagine behaviors observed in the past and to recreate them as imitated behaviors. Thus, a repertoire of signifiers is built that becomes connected to significates through assimilation of events and actions to those signifiers. The development of language arises from symbolic functions, which in turn facilitates development of symbolic thought.

See also: PIAGET, JEAN


Piaget, Jean. Psychology of Intelligence. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, and Company, 1966.

Dennis L. Molfese

Victoria J. Molfese

Julia Robinson

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8