Helping Kids Understand Symbols

An Interview with Dr. Adrian-Mario Gellel

Symbols are all around us, but sometimes they can be hard to understand. We need to know something about their cultural context and the stories that surround them to comprehend their meaning. Adults of my generation see an image of a certain small boy clutching a blanket and are immediately transported to the world of Peanuts characters and the various childhood identities, emotions, and experiences they represent. But contemporary children may not recognize Linus and make the same connections. Professor Adrian-Mario Gellel, who teaches at the University of Malta, talks about why becoming generally symbol literate is important for children, even if they never learn about Snoopy and the gang.


Welcome. I’m Karen-Marie Yust, and my colleague, Erin Reibel, and I are talking with Professor Adrian-Mario Gellel at the University of Malta.

Hi Adrian. You have developed a series of approaches to helping children engage with cultural symbols. Why are symbols important to explore?

Because we live in, through, and with symbols. There’s no reality without symbols, so we can only communicate through symbols. Language is symbolic. All artifacts are symbolic, and we only make meaning through symbols. That is why symbols are extremely important.

So what’s the benefit, then, of being literate in symbols, having symbol literacy?

So up until a few decades ago, maybe two centuries or more, people were naturally symbol literate because life was slower and there was better communication through the transmission of stories and interaction with materials. Today, we live in a very hurried society with information overload and where information is presented in a very, very fragmented manner. So, even though we are naturally inclined to be symbolic, and yes, automatically, children do try to understand their reality through analogies and symbols, the problem is that they’re hindered. It makes it difficult for them to make sense of what past generations tried to communicate and how they made meaning of life itself.

So yeah, that is basically one of the main reasons, and we see this not only in children, but also in young people. So pop culture is full of symbols. Take Enchanted from Taylor Swift or any music video, actually, be it Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or any group, and you’ll find symbols only if you are mindful, and you observe carefully and engage with not just the lyrics, but also with the storyline and the images that are being portrayed.

Now, I mentioned pop music, but this could be also found in any TV series or even books or movies. If you don’t mindfully engage, you can’t delve deeper. If you can’t delve deeper, it’ll obviously be harder to to be enriched and to make meaning. So Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. He’s right. To examine your life you need the tools and symbols, passed on through stories, images, and all culture, not in the highbrow culture, but any form of culture is really difficult to do. It’s difficult to examine life itself.

Thank you, Adrian. I’m thinking about making meaning and enriching, and with that in mind, how do you then encourage symbolic literacy?

Right. So, as I said, we are naturally inclined to create symbols, but symbols are not an individual matter. I can’t simply design my own symbols. Symbols are part of a language which I need to know and engage and speak, not just use. So what we do with children, we have projects with children as young as four years, and it goes up. Well, I stopped ’til the age of 11, but actually, with my university students, I do symbol literacy, and that would be 18 upwards. What we do is engage children through a process of learning how to observe, observe mindfully without first interpreting, and then, engaging with the story, the artifact. It could be a piece of art or even a whole Neolithic complex. It’s telling. And then allow them the time to process.

Now, with young children, they process normally through drawing, and there are examples where they, after, for instance, engaging with a painting of Saint Michael defeating Lucifer, which, mind you, it’s not just a religious story, but it’s basically the archetype of good against evil. The idea of protection, the idea of defending the weak and all those. So, after engaging through observation, through listening to the story, through doing role play, and therefore empathizing with Michael and empathizing with the victims, this is for four-year olds, they could go through a process of drawing, freely drawing. We don’t impose any particular theme.

While drawing – and this is where the role of the adult is most important – while drawing, the adult needs to be near the child and simply asking the question: what story is the child drawing? So it’s not, “What are you drawing?” But which story is emerging? So, while the child is drawing, he or she is narrating the story and in that process of drawing and telling the story, they are constructing meaning. And what we’ve seen, for instance, are moving away from the Michael-Lucifer story to stories which happened in the classroom, stories about bullying or stories about the need to protect my cat and dog, or stories about other battles between what is good and bad. So, characters from digital media, for instance, Ant-Man, and the Minions against Michael and the good people. So you allow them to start little by little to learn the language that allows them to understand the basic, let’s call them archetypes, that form life itself.

Adrian, I really appreciate the way in which your conversation about symbols also leads us to the value of stories that children tell when they deeply encounter symbols and how it helps them make meaning of their realities in that way. Thank you so much for talking with us briefly about symbols and symbol literacy, and for our listeners, check the related resources for some presentation slides that Dr. Gellel prepared for us that will support some of what you’ve heard today. Thanks a lot.

Thank you, Adrian.



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