A festive thought – Visual metaphor in children’s learning processes

by | Jan 30, 2024 | Book Reviews

A festive thought – Visual metaphor in children’s learning processes

Edited by Elena Corte, Sara de Poi, Claudia Guidici, Vea Vecchi, Annamaria Contini

Review by Susan Ramsay

This book from Reggio Children intrigued me. It’s book jacket caught my attention with its open-mouthed scissors lined with chunks of staples, and its long tail of staples flowing out behind. Was the image suggesting a creature that cut and chewed things up, bound things together, or both? The single dotted ‘i’ in the scissor’s finger hole eyed me with a knowing and steady gaze.

Even the bright lettering of the title reminded me of party balloons. I couldn’t help but wonder what the research from Reggio Emilia had to teach me about the place of metaphor in children’s learning. I bought the book.

A festive thought – Visual metaphor in children’s learning is published by Reggio Children as a culmination of extensive research carried out in the Isituzione of Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia’s Department of Education and Human Sciences. It’s fascinating documentations, reflections, and analysis, lift up the importance of adult wonderings and intentional research into children’s learning. It opens our minds to new perspectives and implications for teaching young children in our contexts too.

I have long recognized that young children frequently use unexpected actions or words to describe or share their thinking. An infant turns a funnel or sieve upside down and places it on his head as a hat. My 14-month-old granddaughter holds a spoon or shoe to the side of her face placing the rounded part of the spoon or heel of the shoe next to her mouth as she greets us with a cheery ‘hallo’ (hello).

These acts of spontaneous metaphor make me smile. I find them clever and creative, unfettered by dictionary definitions that would have us believe word knowledge is either correct or incorrect.  But reading A festive thought took me deeper into thinking about why and how children use metaphor.  In the words of Gianrico Carofiglio, metaphor is essential to lifelong learning.

“Metaphor is a form of thinking. It represents the way our minds work in that moment of attempting to extend the realm of knowledge. We use what is known in order to define what we do not yet know, and to communicate new discoveries.”  ( A festive thought, p. 26)

Metaphor is central to expanding everyday language development – as a way of understanding how one thing is related or similar to another by shape, function, sound, or characteristic. The funnel is shaped similarly to an elf hat, the sieve to ball cap. Spoons and shoes are, like cell phones, an elongated shape that can be held easily in one hand to reach ear and mouth at the same time.

While we may consider metaphor as a verbal or literary device, or a significant element of poetry or art, this book takes us on a journey of looking for and recognizing the expression of metaphor toddlers, preschoolers, and young school-age children too.

“The underlying requirement for being able to create a metaphor is to recognize similarity, and to conceive of one object or event as if it were another…. The perception of similarity is present at birth and is necessary for the most basic of learnings.” (A festive thought, p. 207)

The book suggests metaphoric language emerges in stages of:

  • Action metaphors based on resemblances of objects (gesture with verbal naming following the pretend action – often emerging during symbolic play)
  • Perceptual metaphors (based on perceived properties of objects without actions)
  • Psychological metaphors (e.g. an unfriendly person is icy; a loving person is warm). Young children often take these metaphors literally, though by middle childhood are more easily understood.)

So why does any of this matter?

Their research shows evidence that metaphoric capacity is an early-emerging and generative human capacity that tends to decline in children’s middle years. This may be because children have a desire to follow the rules and use language ‘correctly’. But we know that metaphoric thinking is how scientists create breakthroughs in long-held assumptions about medicine, the environment, the cosmos, and technology. It’s the seed of new inventions in our world. It’s how poets, musicians, and storytellers help us see ourselves from alternative perspectives and relate to one another with greater understanding and empathy.

Nurturing metaphoric thinking in children is significant to supporting children’s intelligence.

A festive thought is filled with novel examples of invitations researchers and educators offered children as they tried to tune into and understand how children use metaphor to better understand their world. The book is also filled with insightful reflections by educators of what was hard, surprising, and still unknown to them as they embarked on this research with the children.

What’s Reggio Children’s final words to educators and parents about metaphoric thinking?

“I would encourage them to play metaphor renaming games with children- asking children questions like: What does this remind you of? What does this sound like? What does this feel like? And if children respond in a very literal, conventional manner, model some metaphoric stretching!”

A festive thought tells us that a child’s world of metaphor is already at play in our programs, classrooms, and homes, waiting for us to notice and nurture its richness in our everyday interactions with young children.