Metaphor use by young children

I have been researching metaphor use by young children…

Annoyingly, much of the work on children’s use of metaphor seems to focus on their ability to understand and make themselves understood in the adult world (rather than on their own metaphor generation for the purposes of making sense of the world. Obviously, I think this is a limiting (and perhaps adult-centered) view, but it’s a place to start. Here are some of the ideas and statements I found interesting:

The metaphors that younger children use are based on physical links, rather than conceptual and psychological ones (Winner, 1982). As children become more expert in reading and writing, and as they grow older, their use of spontaneous metaphor declines (Wagner, Winner, Cicchetti, & Gardner, 1981; Winner et al., 1976). Production and comprehension of metaphor may be related to the nature of conversation between children and the teacher (or other adult). That is, children’s exploration and understanding of metaphor are diminished by teachers and other adults (Gallas, 1994; Winner, 1982) who may look for specific meanings of metaphorical language.”  (p.96, Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, 2000/2001)

“Children as young as 5 and 6 can use concrete, functional metaphors, and even explain their choices (Waggoner & Palermo, 1990). Comprehension of metaphor is related to the context of the metaphorical statement and prior knowledge (Ortony, 1979), and to the context of the research situation itself (Vosniadou et al., 1984).” (p.96, Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, 2000/2001)

“Both Winner (1982) and Gallas (1994) found that teachers and other adults often undermine children’s verbal exploration of metaphor.” (p.98, Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, 2000/2001)

“Winner (1988), Palermo (1986), and Vosniadou et al. (1984) questioned the extent to which prior knowledge of psychological states described metaphorically affects metaphoric comprehension. A child’s failure to interpret the metaphor ‘the prison guard was a hard rock’ (Winner et al., 1976) might indicate unfamiliarity with prison guards, or the quality of being called hard. Children may not understand metaphorical attributes of character in other contexts (Vosniadou et al., 1984). Pearson, Raphael, Tepaske, and Hyser (1981) discovered that children understood unfamiliar information better with the use of metaphor than they did familiar information, yet metaphor seemed to impede comprehension of familiar information. This finding suggests children use metaphorical language to understand the world and to build knowledge as much as they develop it as a result of their knowledge.” (p.99,  Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, 2000/2001)

Vosniadou et al. (1984) note, “In real life, children are not usually exposed to metaphors out of context” (p.1589). Empirical studies, out of context, might create problems as much for adults as they do for children. The belief that texts containing metaphors are more difficult to read than texts without them is not necessarily simply a matter of the presence of the metaphor. Where metaphors are forced, contrived, or out of context, text is less comprehensible, not because of the metaphors but because of a lack of coherence.” (p.99,  Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, 2000/2001)

Jay A Seitz’s (1997) study results “indicated that (a) constructive-object play, rather than symbolic play, facilitated the understanding of perceptual and taxonomic metaphor, suggesting differences in early styles of metaphoric usage; (b) despite previous findings, the study failed to replicate a relationship between operativity and metaphoric understanding; and (c) younger children did significantly better in the pictorial medium, suggesting a picture-superiority effect for more perceptible metaphorical relations (perceptual and physiognomic), whereas older children showed a word-superiority effect for more conceptual metaphors (psychological-physical and taxonomic).” (from the abstract) I had a few problems with the methodology of Seitz’s study: it didn’t seem to be entirely appropriate for the 4 year old age group it worked with and included ‘tasks’ set by the researcher that were intended to assess ‘child-initiated’ symbolic play. (The child was told to go on a picnic, for example). Strange.

In any case, Seitz writes that “there is not an overall portrait of how various metaphoric content emerges in the preschool years and what may be important developmental antecedents” and intends this study to contribute to this gap. (I’m not sure it does, but the gap is still an interesting one and I agree with the notion of exploring it further.) Seitz also explains that “Theoretical claims for the close correspondence between play and metaphoric behaviors have been made in the literature, particularly from the naturalistic observation of symbolic play in young children (Winner, 1979; Winner, McCarthy, Kleinman, & Gardner, 1979). However, there is little empirical evidence to substantiate such claims. The prevailing view is that play “seems to develop a more generalized attitude and/or scheme which predisposes the individual to creating and using novelty” (Vandenberg, 1980). Symbolic play should display some “family resemblance” to metaphoric comprehension and production because both could be argued to possess an underlying similarity common to systems of nonostensive reference, in which a signifier stands in place of a signified. According to Ricoeur (1978), in the act of understanding a metaphorical relation between two things, a dual system of reference is involved between literal similarity (the “world” of reality) and nonliteral similarity (the “world” of the metaphor). Metaphor, like pretend play, involves suspension of reference to the everyday world–hence, the referent (e.g., an imaginary horse) is termed nonostensive, making possible a new creative reference, a “remaking of reality.”” (Seitz 1997)

“Even though the development of linguistic ability is undoubtably a central achievement of childhood, Gombrich (1982) has emphasized the primacy of the visual image in experience. For example, in Gombrich’s account, the use of the color blue to denote bodies of water on a map is an instance of a “natural metaphor.” Perceptual and physiognomic metaphors presented in pictures are easily understood by young children because they draw on natural relationships in the world that are largely a product of biological constraints. As children begin to evolve systems of verbal elaboration and to acquire cultural knowledge, including domain-specific knowledge of language and other conventional symbol systems, they become important media of expression and comprehension.” (Seitz 1997)

Shotwell, Wolf, and Gardner’s (1980) research suggested that constructive-object play produced a relatively high incidence of metaphoric behaviors, principally perceptual and enactive metaphors, for a group of very young children they designated as “patterners.” Symbolic play tended to produce a relatively low incidence of metaphoric behaviors for a group of children they designated as “dramatists.” These findings suggest the early evolution of children’s preferences for modes of engagement with different kinds of materials.” (Seitz 1997) Interesting!

Chesley, Gillett and Wagner (2008) consider the use of verbal and nonverbal metaphor with children in counseling. Again, the focus is on understanding and being understood more than metaphor generation for the purposes of making sense of the world, but their article does touch on this aspect of children’s metaphor. They write: “Although children who have reached a certain developmental level may be able to understand metaphors, those with limited language skills are unlikely to express themselves using verbal metaphors. Young children, however, routinely use nonverbal forms of communication to express themselves. One example is children’s play, which can serve functions that are similar to adults’ use of verbal metaphor in which one event is linked to another in a nonliteral way (Evans, 1988). In this article, we propose that the traditional definition of metaphor as a form of verbal communication can be expanded to include nonverbal forms of expression. This is especially relevant for children, who express internal thoughts and emotions through play with or without the accompanying verbal discourse (Bowman, 1995).” (Chesley, Gillett & Wagner, p.399)

Drucker (1994) used the term ‘metaphoric competence’ (p.79) to describe a client’s ability to create metaphors.” (Chesley, Gillett & Wagner, p.406)

I like that these authors assert “Researchers must… explore the meaning of children’s metaphors.” (Chesley, Gillett & Wagner, p.408) They also note that “Research on children’s narratives also represents another important area for investigation.” (p.409) I think their focus here is a counseling one, but their assertions could be interpreted more generally with regard to all children’s use of metaphor (a focus that might then feed back into a counseling perspective).


NB any emphases in blue bold are mine.

Jay A seitz (1997) Metaphor, symbolic play, and logical thought in early childhood. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 123(4) Nov.,pp373+

Sandip Lee Anne Wilson, ‘”A Metaphor is Pinning Air to the Wall”: A Literature Review of the Child’s Use of metaphor,’ Childhood Education, Winter 2000-01: 96-99. (available on Auckland Public Library catalogue)

Gayle L Chesley, Dodie A Gillett and William G Wagner (2008) Verbal and Nonverbal Metaphor with Children in Counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development Fall Vol. 86, pp.399-411

studies cited within these references:

Bowman, RP (1995). Using metaphors as tools for counseling children. Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 29, 206-216

Drucker J (1994) Constructing metaphors: the role of symbolization in the treatment of children. In A Slade & DP Wolf (Eds), Children at play: Clinical and developmental approaches to meaning and representation (pp.62-80) New York: Oxford University Press

Evans, MB (1988). The role of metaphor in psychotherapy and personality change: A theoretical reformulation. Psychotherapy, 25, 543-551

Gallas, K (1994) The languages of learning: How children talk, write, dance, draw, and sing their understanding of the world. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gombrich, E. H. (1982). The image and the eye: Further studies in the psychology of pictorial represesentation Oxford, England: Phaidon Press

Ortony, A (1979) Beyond similarity. Psychological Review 86(3), 161-181

Palermo, D (1986) Metaphor: a portal for viewing the child’s mind. In LP Lipsitt & JH Cantor (Eds), Experimental child psychologist: essays and experiments in honor of Charles C Spiker (pp.111-137), Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Pearson, PD, Raphael, TE, Tepaske, N & Hyser, C (1981). The function of metaphor in children’s recall of expository passages. Journal of reading behavior, 13(1), 249-261

Ricoeur, P. (1978). The metaphorical process as cognition, imagination, and feeling. Critical inquiry, 5(1), 141-157.

Shotwell, J. M., Wolf, D., & Gardner, H. (1980). styles of achievement in early symbol use. In M. L. Foster & S. H. Brandes (Eds.), Symbol as sense: New approaches to the analysis of meaning (pp. 175-199). San Diego: Academic Press

Vanderberg, B. (1980). Play, problem-solving and creativity. In K. H. Rubin (Ed.), Children’s play: New directions for child development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Vosniadou, S & Ortony A (1983) the emergence of the literal-metaphorical-anomalous distinction in young children. Child Development, 54, 154-161

Vosniadou, S, Ortony A, Reynolds, RE & Wilson P (1984) Sources of difficulty in the young child’s understanding of metaphorical language. Child development 55, 1588-1606

Waggoner, JE & Palermo, DS (1990). Betty is a bouncing bubble: children’s comprehension of emotion-descriptive metaphors. Developmental Psychology, 25(1), 152-163

Wagner, S, Winner E, Cicchetti R& Gardner H (1981) Metaphorical mapping in human infants. Child Development 52, 728-731

Winner E (1979) New names for old things; the emergence of metaphoric language. Child Language, 6 469-491

Winner E (1982) The child is father to the metaphor in H Gardner (Ed) Art, mind, and brain: a cognitive approach to creativity (pp.158-169). New York: Basic Books, HarperCollins

Winner E (1988) The point of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Winner, E., McCarthy, M., Kleinman, S., & Gardner, H. (1979). First metaphors. In D. Wolf & H. Gardner (Eds.), Early symbolization: New directions for child development (Vol. 3, pp. 21-41). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Winner E, Rosentiel, AK & Gardner H (1976) the development of metaphoric understanding. Developmental Psychology, 12(4), 289-297


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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