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Children demonstrate the ability to connect pieces of information in understanding objects, ideas, and relationships.

Children use their everyday interactions to build understanding and attribute meaning to people and objects in their environment. In infancy, children use their senses to receive information about their physical environment. They learn about object properties through physical exploration and through their interactions with their caregivers.

Children begin to build schemas, or organized patterns of thought, for information they receive; these schemas soon develop into actual mental representations or concepts of objects and people.1 Once children develop object permanence, they understand that objects and people are separate and permanent, and they have a mental, abstract representation of them. Children now can use familiar objects in the manner they are intended to be used and can identify and name familiar people and objects.

Around 18 months of age, there is a shift in children’s cognitive development that enables them to think symbolically. This is marked by children’s ability to use objects to represent other objects and to engage in simple pretend play. For example, children will pretend to drink milk from an empty cup, or use a toy hammer as a pretend phone.

At 24 months of age, children can identify characteristics of objects and people, and are able to distinguish their different properties. Children’s pretend play becomes more complex as they are able to incorporate more sophisticated aspects of symbolic thought. By 36 months, children use language and actions during play in order to explore adult roles and relationships and sort emotions. Children also begin to categorize familiar objects by their properties, such as color or type.

Symbolic Representation

Delayed imitation, language, and symbolic play indicate the emergence of symbolic representation in children.2 Symbolic representation occurs when children use symbols to represent a concept that is not present or visible. Symbols include language, images, and different concrete objects. For example, children engage in symbolic representation during play. They may pretend to brush their hair with their hand, or hold up a block to their ear and pretend it’s a telephone. Children may see a picture of a man and say, “daddy.” As children develop, their use of symbolic representation becomes more complex. They use symbolic representation in play to explore relationships and adults’ roles, in addition to managing emotions. Children may designate a “mommy” and “baby” while playing, and act out some of the behaviors attributed to those particular roles.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to receive and organize information through social interactions and sensory exploration.

Indicators for children include:

  • Turns head toward sounds
  • Begins to focus on objects, sounds, and people
  • Actively explores the environment through the five senses
  • Attempts to repeat an action, e.g., pats the table and tries to pat it again
  • Focuses and begins to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar objects, sounds, and people

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide responsive and nurturing care; read infant’s cues
  • Provide objects that the child can manipulate, mouth, and grasp
  • Imitate actions the child attempts to make
  • Engage in play with the child; follow the child’s lead

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to recognize object characteristics and build awareness of simple concepts through interactions and exploration.

Indicators for children include:

  • Develops object permanence, aware that an object still exists even when it is not physically visible, e.g., pulls the blanket off the pacifier, cries when caregiver leaves the room
  • Uses physical actions while exploring objects, e.g., rolls a ball back and forth on the floor, purposefully throws object repeatedly onto floor to be picked up
  • Identifies and indicates objects and people in pictures, e.g., points
  • Focuses attention on objects, people, and sounds for increasing amounts of time

Strategies for interaction

  • Use play to hide objects from the child, and encourage the child to find them
  • Demonstrate how to make different objects move, e.g., roll a ball gently toward the child
  • Name objects found in the child’s environment
  • Talk to the child about objects and their characteristics, e.g., “Both of these are red”
  • Name objects and pictures the child points to

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to understand object representation and begin to use verbal and nonverbal communication with object use.

Indicators for children include:

  • Pretends to use objects in their intended manner, e.g., holds a play phone to ear and engages in a conversation by babbling
  • Begins to identify and name objects and people
  • Uses an object to represent another during play, e.g., uses block as a phone
  • Begins to identify characteristics of the object, e.g., “red ball”
  • With assistance, groups a few objects by similar characteristics, e.g., color, shape, or size

Strategies for interaction

  • Continue labeling the child’s environment for him or her; introduce new objects to the child by naming them
  • Engage in play with the child; follow the child’s lead
  • Create a simple game where the child can try to sort objects by one attribute
  • Encourage the child to identify objects that are the same, e.g., matching activities

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to demonstrate the ability to classify objects based on common characteristics and begin to apply knowledge of simple concepts to new situations.

Indicators for children include:

  • Identifies characteristics of objects and people when named, e.g., colors
  • Begins to arrange objects in a line, e.g., lines up toy cars, one after the other
  • Uses symbolic representation during play, e.g., grabs a hair brush and uses it as a telephone
  • Purposefully arranges similar objects, e.g., divides plastic blocks into a red group, a blue group, and a yellow group
  • Identifies categories, e.g., able to point out all the animals within a picture even with different types of objects represented

Strategies for interaction

  • Incorporate learning about colors into songs, reading, and sensory play
  • Provide different materials and objects of the same shape and color, e.g., blocks
  • Play simple matching games with the child; provide guidance as needed
  • Expand on the child’s play by introducing new ways to use familiar objects
  • Create a simple game where the child can try to sort objects by two or three attributes


  1. Bjorklund, D. F. (2000). Children’s Thinking: Developmental Function and Individual Differences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Berk, Laura E. & Winsler, Adam (1995). Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygostsky and Early Childhood Education. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Reviewed: 2012