004: How to encourage creativity and artistic ability in young children – Interview with Dr. Tara Callaghan

I’m so excited to welcome my first guest on the Your Parenting Mojo podcast: Professor Tara Callaghan of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.   Professor Callaghan has spent a great number of years studying the emergence of artistic ability in young children and she shares some of her insights with us.  This is a rather longer episode than usual so here are some places you might want to skip ahead to if you have specific interest:

[3:55]: The connection between individuality and creativity, especially in Western cultures

[9:00]: What is “symbolic representation” and why is the development of symbolic representation an important milestone for young children?

[12:10]: Is it helpful for parents to ask a child “What are you drawing?”

[15:25]: When do children understand symbols?

[31:15]: What can parents do to support children’s development of symbolic representation in particular and artistic ability in general?


Brownlee, P. (2016). Magic Places. Good Egg Books: Thames, NZ (must be ordered directly from the publisher in New Zealand; see: http://penniebrownlee.weebly.com/books.html)

Callaghan, T.C., Rackozy, H., Behne, T., Moll, H, Lizkowski, U., Warneken, F., & Tomasello, (2011). Early social cognition in three cultural contexts. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 76(2), Serial Number 299. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mono.2011.76.issue-2/issuetoc

Callaghan, T. & Corbit, J. (2015). The development of symbolic representation. In Vol. 2 (L. Liben & U. Muller, Vol. Eds.) of the 7th Edition (R. Lerner, Series Ed) of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (pp. 250-294). New York: Wiley.

Callaghan, T., & M. Rankin (2002). Emergence of graphic symbol functioning and the question of domain specificity: A longitudinal training study. Child Development, March/April 2002, 73:2, 359-376.

Callaghan, T., P. Rochat & J. Corbit (2012). Young children’s knowledge of the representational function of pictoral symbols: Development across the preschool years in three cultures.  Journal of Cognition and Development, 13:3, 320-353. Available at: http://www.psychology.emory.edu/cognition/rochat/lab/CALLAGHAN,%20ROCHAT,%20&%20CORBIT,%202012.pdf

DeLoache, J. S., (2004).  Becoming symbol-minded. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 66-70. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661303003346

Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current Biology 15(17), R644.R645. Full article available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982205009607

Ganea, P.A., M.A. Preissler, L. Butler, S. Carey, and J.S. DeLoache (2009). Toddlers’ referential understanding of pictures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 104(3):283-295. Full article available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865246/

Golomb, C. (2003). The child’s creation of a pictoral world. London: Psychology Press.

Jolley, R.P. (2010). Children and pictures: Drawing and understanding. Wiley-Blackwell, Cichester, England.

Jolley, R. P. & S. Rose (2008). The relationship between production and comprehension of representational drawing. In Children’s understanding and production of pictures, drawings, and art (C. Milbrath & H.M. Trautner (Eds)). Boston, MA, Hogrefe Publishing.  Chapter available at: http://www.staffs.ac.uk/personal/sciences/rj2/publications/Jolley%20and%20Rose%20chapter.pdf

Kellogg, R. (1970). Analyzing Children’s Art. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, CA.

Preissler, M.A., and P. Bloom. Two-year-olds use artist intention to understand drawings. Cognition 1[06:51]2-518. Full article available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Rochat, P. & T. Callaghan (2005). What drives symbolic development? The case of pictoral comprehension and production. In L. Namy (Ed.) Symbol use and symbolic representation. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. Chapter available at: http://www.psychology.emory.edu/cognition/rochat/lab/WhatDrivesSymbolicDevelopment.pdf

Winner, E. (1985). Invented worlds: The psychology of the arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.


Read Full Transcript


Jen:                                      [00:35]                   Hello! This is Jen Lumanlan of Your Parenting Mojo and I’m here with episode four on Creativity and Artistic Ability in Young Children. So the question that’s lovely, what is it seems to be one of the most asked by parents of children related related to young children’s drawings, but she’ll do children even know what IT is? I’m really excited to welcome my first guest on the Your Parenting Mojo podcast today, Professor Tara Callaghan. I went to start by introducing her by telling you a little bit about how we met. So I visited Reggio Emilia Italy in April 2016 because I wanted to learn more about the approach to early childhood education that was founded in that city. And before I went, I read a book called Magic Places by Penny Brownlee, which says that a parent shouldn’t ask what a scribbling child is drawing because they’re not drawing anything, they’re just scribbling. But in contrast, the people in Reggio Emilia, I believe that the children are “fully aware of the representative process” and that’s actually a quote from one of the practitioners there after I witnessed a group of under two year olds, I think they were about 18 months who had been given in a real orange and a set of orange paints and the toddler is we’re making orange paint marks on the paper because that was the only color that was available to them.

Jen:                                      [01:45]                   And based on my reading of Magic Places, I queried whether the toddlers could possibly understand that they were being asked to represent the orange on the paper and clearly the director thought that they could. Her position was that even if the marks don’t look like an orange to us, the toddlers understand the marks as a representation of an orange. When I returned home, I started digging into the research on this topic and ultimately found a chapter that Professor Callahan authored a book called Children’s Understanding and Production of Pictures, Drawings and Art, and it was the most comprehensive, really insightful piece I’d read on that topic and she expressed a view that was quite different from what the Reggio practitioners believe. So I reached out to her and she was kind enough to actually spend quite a bit of time patiently answering my questions so I could write a very long blog post about it on my personal blog, which was actually the thing that made me realize that I should start a podcast.

Jen:                                      [02:33]                   So it’s a formally introduce her: Professor Callaghan is Professor of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She’s a developmental scientist working in the fields of symbolic and pro-social development from a cultural perspective. She received her Ph.D in psychology from Brown University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University and she served as consulting editor for the journal Child Development, and she also coauthored a chapter on symbolic development in the new 2015 edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, which if you don’t happen to be familiar with, it is a pretty seminal work on the psychological development of young children. So thank you so much for joining us Dr Callaghan.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [03:11]                   Oh my pleasure, Jen. My pleasure. So, thanks for the introduction. I might add to that that I am also very interested in cultural developmental psychology and so maybe some of that will come up as we talk a little bit more today, but one of the things that I’ve been doing for about the past decade is, is looking across cultures to help understand what children know, uh, as a result of the socialization that they get from parents and others in their culture compared to what, how we are built as humans, I guess. What is our human nature?

Jen:                                      [03:54]                   Yeah. I’m actually very interested in that as well so do feel free to sprinkle that in as it comes up. Awesome. Okay. Well the first thing I wanted to ask you about is something that I hadn’t even considered until you kind of mentioned it as an offhand comment, as part of a larger discussion that we were having when we were emailing and you said that “creativity is highly valued in our society and is part of our individualistic orientation. Creativity that makes a difference in art, depends on the ability to do and see things differently and also have a command of the medium.” And it was the first part of that that, that really blew my mind. I really hadn’t considered the possibility that not all cultures value creativity equally. I just figured that if everybody had access to crayons and paper, everybody would give their child crayons and paper and we pretty much do the same thing as I do with my child. So I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about this.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [04:44]                   Yeah, I think that what, what I was focused on was, was thinking about how we define creativity in our own society and by our own, I’m talking about a kind of middle class, North American, European, Euro-centric kind of um, uh, what is typically called the Western orientation. So in the West we’re well known for valuing independence and independent thought and if you are in a society that values that, then a lot of different things including creativity, get defined in a way that meets those societal goals. And then if you’re a parent, you’re trying to, without really even being aware of this, you are instilling the cultural values in your children as you parent them. So I think in different art forms it’s maybe more or less true, but I, my observation of, of art and my experience with art in our culture is that to get ahead, you have to be different from somebody else.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [05:52]                   You have to be contributing a new perspective or a new discovery, that sort of thing. And that’s also the case in science really, that we really are pushing to individuals to contribute something that’s brand new. So when I say that it’s highly valued, I think creativity is highly valued in probably every culture, but it may be defined and what, what constitutes or how the process of creativity may be seen to be a different. Back to your issue about creativity and crayons and giving. It really comes down to what the parents’ goals are in that society. And India is not a society, it’s a multitude of societies. Canada, likewise; U.S. likewise. So when you try to think about a parent helping a child become creative, you’ve got to know what that parents’ aims are, what are their parenting goals there? And part of that, uh, those goals will be shaped by the society they find themselves in and you may find more of a, um, a goal in, in the US and Canada in counteracting the larger society goals. So you might want to do things differently than you feel the larger society may hold children back or or whatever. And so you see a lot of that kind of independence in Canada and I, and I think that’s, that’s really valuable, but probably becoming aware of your own goals, how they’re influenced by society, the society we live in and as a parent we want our children, uh, I would say to become contributing members to the society that they find themselves in and so shaping our child to fit in well with an individualist society where that’s going to bring them the most success in their lives in terms of happiness, and feeling that they are valued and making a contribution I think is probably behind a lot of the shaping or parenting practices that we do.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [08:00]                   Like how do you prepare your child if you want to foster creativity, which I think is a really great thing to do, in any individual, regardless of culture, then how do you go about that and how do you predict what your society is going to be like in, you know, when your child is becoming an adult and a launching off to make their contribution to life. And so I think keeping tabs on what’s going on in other cultures is a really good way to keep a handle on what your child’s going to need and creativity I think is a great way because the more adaptive we are to change and to new things and to seeing things from different perspectives, I think that that’s where I’d put my money – the better able we will be to adapt to whatever’s coming down the road.

Jen:                                      [08:58]                   Great. So let’s start digging a little bit into your research. Can you tell us about what symbolic representation means and why it’s important?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:06]                   A symbol is something that stands for something else and as a symbol can be, as you know, many forms that can be a child, a naive kind of drawing of a person, what we call the tadpole, which is a little head body with a couple of stick legs coming out of it. And sometimes, an eye, and a smile as my grandson called the mouth…

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:30]                   Just one eye?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [09:31]                   Yeah, sometimes sometimes multiple eyes, when he really gets into that form! So that visual or very simple graphic can be a shorthand if you like, or, or an image that stands for something else. So a symbol is something that stands in for or represent something else. And representation…when you put those together, symbolic representation is really about a process that you are intentionally creating, a symbol in order to stand for something else.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [10:13]                   Now, why would humans even want to do that? Well, the ultimate goal of all symbols is to communicate with other humans. So that’s it. Symbolic representation is at the very basic foundation, it’s about communication. And I, I, I said intentionally, forming that because of the scribbles. And you talked about the book that you had read, Magic Places where she said no, these scribbles don’t mean anything. They very likely don’t. And they very likely are… Sometimes children happen upon something that looks like it and can recognize a shape; their form perception is excellent for sure. And their color perception is excellent by the time they’re two. But their cognitive ability to understand such an abstract concept as ‘stand for,’ ‘stand in for’ or ‘represent’ is not there yet. And that’s a very strict criteria.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [11:24]                   So somebody will say, well, my two year old drew something as you know, and said this is a dog. And then when I looked at it, it really looked like a dog and sure… Those kinds of perceptual similarities labeled after the fact precede genuine symbolic understanding. And it’s all part of that process of how we help children and how we scaffold them to this understanding of these very complex terms. So if a child brings you a picture and you say, what is it? Then right away the child’s getting the message that there’s meaning here. So you know, you’re helping them to understand by that question, that meaning is involved when we do these kinds of things.

Jen:                                      [12:10]                   So do you think it is helpful for parents to ask the child “what is it?” Does it, does it scaffold that knowledge? And if you, if parents are listening to and understand what the term scaffolding is, I have a whole episode coming up on that in a couple of weeks…but is it something that helps the children’s developmental process or does it make them aware of something that, you know, it might be better if they were naive about for a little bit longer.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [12:36]                   I think that’s almost an individual choice. I’m careful about how I ask questions, but I don’t see a problem whatsoever of parents saying, “Hey, what’s that? That’s so cool.” And, and, and, you know, having a discussion with the child but not pushing it. If a child is a parent can really tell whether the child’s really grasping what they’re asking them or not. And so that’s where, in your episode on scaffolding, you’ll be talking no doubt about, you know, you, uh, children are in this zone of understanding and there’s some things they are capable of and some things are not. You had like this little boundary around you where you can understand some things not. And in that sweet spot you can help children, uh, understand with particular questions like that. Oh, what’s that? And let me draw something and look what I’m drawing and then the child can see that when you have an object you can make a figure look like it with a certain amount of motor control and intention and and then they’re sort of getting at that process what that process is all about and scribbling is great fun for kids and you know, it’s very enjoyable for children to work with the medium of paint or or marker or whatever it is, color and shape and make all…and the graphics and graphic motor actions are really fun for them to do as well.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [14:05]                   So these, I see all as important precursors. And then if you wrap that all up with an attentive parent who is not imposing their own understanding on the child, but reading from the child’s reactions, what is it that they understand? I think that if I, if I were training as a…and I do train lots of students, I’m asking them to be completely open minded and not to have an idea ahead of time of what this child understands. Just try to see, try to probe lightly without giving them the answer…

Jen:                                      [14:47]                   So what kinds of things do you say to… What do you tell your students to say in that situation?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [14:52]                   You would follow up but not lead the child down the path that you want them to go so you mostly when we do experiments we don’t have any kind of dialogue with children when we’re done the experiment we might follow up with when you did that, what did you mean? Or what is this part? And I noticed that you did this and and and so on. So mostly we would, we would keep our experiments really pristine and not influenced by by an adult input whatsoever.

Jen:                                      [15:27]                   So you’ve done a lot of research on when children understand that pictures are actually symbols for a real object. And I know you’ve spent many, many years, they hear about this. Can you tell us just a little bit about it and specifically I’m interested in the fact that there are people who believe that maybe symbolic representation develops a little bit earlier than you do, and so what leads you to think that it comes in later than some other people do?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [15:53]                   Well, there’s a big move in developmental psychology, always has been really toward finding the earliest onset of something which is a really valuable goal. It’s really important to do that because of that question that we talked about just briefly at the beginning. What do we have as part of human nature? And if it’s part of human nature, it should show up very early in life unless it’s on a developmental timeline. Like my gray hair didn’t show up early in life, but it’s still, it showed early. And so that’s part of my genetic makeup. So we want to, we want to sort out that, and separate it from what is showing up as a result of training or experience and learning. So when it started to be discussed, I would say Judy Deloche with was really the first one to bring this issue in in the early eighties and her research and you know, she was interested in three dimensional models and had a really great procedure and she started talking about the fact that children don’t understand the symbolic nature of 3D models, like a little truck for example, or a little, uh, she usually had a little room, a little playroom, and then would show children where she was hiding something and they couldn’t use that model of the room as a symbol until they were about three.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [17:21]                   So that began the debate really on do children understand. So if children see a picture though, what I reasoned at the time was that children are seeing that picture of where Big Bird is hiding, and Big Bird’s hiding behind a couch, say, and she shows him a picture of the couch. This is where he’s hiding now, go in the room and find them. And they were able to do that at two and a half. But, but my reasoning was that those children are verbal now and so they see a picture and they say couch and they go in and they go to the couch, and so they’re using language to actually scaffold their picture perception and the picture may be long gone from them and they may just use the picture, as you know, reading as we do with picture books with children and we point to things and name them.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [18:11]                   So I started to think, how could I develop something that would actually show that children are actually understanding this picture. And so I tried to develop something where you couldn’t, um, I guess my first strategy was to say they’re wrong. And then to say how can I show that when it is in fact that they do. So to show that they were wrong, what I did was to remove the ability to take, to use language in a picture. And once you do that. So for example, I have a picture, I had an artist draw pictures of little, three dimensional animal toys that you get in zoo shops, that sort of thing. So I had two different cats, very different looking cats, but they’re both cats. And so you show a picture of one of those cats and then remove the picture and immediately the two little cats are there and ask the child to find the one that’s in the picture, they’re really at chance. They’re just like abysmal until they’re about three. And then they get that.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [19:21]                   And when you say “At chance,” you mean, they can’t tell which one is in the picture?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [19:25]                   It’s [50:50]; they’ll half the time to choose the one that was in the picture and half the time, the other one. And so this is like looking across a number of trials for each child. And so every child prior to three is that 50 slash 50. And the control for that is to show that if you do have language then they can actually pick that. And so that one was to have cat dog. So, um, so you have that same picture of the cat and that same little cat down there that goes with the picture, a paired with a dog and children are 100 percent with that. So as soon as you remove language, children were doing badly.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [20:06]                   So that was a big revelation for me and for others who were starting to pay attention to that. So language I think is something that children are acquiring that symbol system earlier than they are any other symbol system really other than gesture; they’re picking up gesture earlier than a spoken language and verbal language. So showing that. And I did a number of other studies that really did demonstrate that perceptual similarity makes a difference in children’s ability to use these pictorial symbols. But the bottom line is that you’re seeing a shift between two and a half and three, whereas most children at the age of three are getting that special control of language and most children at two and a half are not. So when I think about symbolic representation and this whole intentional thing that we do as adults, where we are trying to communicate and we improve our message, if, if that communication isn’t getting through that, that spearheaded another experiment where I had children drawing and drawing very simple things.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [21:21]                   So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a spider ball, but they’re rubber balls with black rubber coming out of them like little spiders. So I had children drawing large, small spider balls and aspire to balls with the hair and without the hair and three little spider balls, a vs one and those sorts of things. So it’s all a circle and line and children in their scribbles by 18 months they’re doing circles and lines. So their graphic motor is perfectly able to do that. It’s whether they understand that this is a possibility, that shifts. So I had children drawing, and these children were between two and three and children typically even at three will draw all of those things as a circle. And that’s it. When they do a form of representation and anything that’s a line or a circle is the simplest thing, and I always ask children when I’m asking for a drawing to be produced, to do something that can be done with those two forms. So, give them the easiest task and see when that emerges, is my strategy? So children were drawing things in it that I. Then the next step was I would pick up a drawing, say why now I’m going to put your drawings with the things that you drew. And then I’ll say, now I can’t tell which one this goes. Can you draw me another ones who I can tell it goes with this one a and hold up a spider ball. And then the older children started to put in those distinguishing marks so that I would know that it was the spider ball, not the regular ball and that sort of thing. So that’s another indication that children, very young children don’t know about this communicative function of symbols.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [23:14]                   But older children closer to three do. They get that. So when you say, I can’t understand this, then they try to improve their message and there had been one study done with language that, I think it was Roberta Golinkoff who did this experiment where kids were in a high chair and they were asking for something and you know, before children, when children are still babbling and they’re just about to produce words, she had the experiment or pretend that they couldn’t understand the child, although it was probably pretty clear that they wanted the juice and not the Cheerios or something. And children actually improve their production. So I really took that as an inspiration. How to design that study I just talked about is like say, you know, if children understand anything about the communicative function then they should improve their, their symbols, in that case.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [24:14]                   So that’s another way that I attack the question. But the study that really made it clear for me was a study that I did that was kind of thinking, Okay. So if I know, I can reflect on the fact that I know that a picture is a symbol for something, when can children do that? That’s a more sophisticated understanding and there’s something called theory of mind that we study in developmental psychology that made a huge splash about 25 years ago and his re-splashing because we think that infants have also got this understanding that other people are mental beings that are distinct from them, so they may hold in their minds different information than they themselves hold. So a child that has a theory of mind will know that you and I have different beliefs about an event. So the classic test is to say, Oh, here’s Susie and she loves chocolate and she’s going outside to play, but she’s going to put her chocolate in the cupboard. While she’s outside her mom comes and shifts the chocolate to another place. Where’s Susie going to look when she comes back in?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [25:27]                   So the child knows that the chocolate was moved; Susie doesn’t, she was outside, and so where is the child gonna look, if the child understands that scenario as being, here’s two distinct minds, this child has a false belief; I on the other hand know where it is, so I have a true belief and they’ll make a prediction that she’ll look in the wrong place where she left it.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [25:54]                   And the child doesn’t understand that somebody else could believe something that they, that they know to be different. Is that right?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [26:02]                   The younger child doesn’t understand that. So a three year old fails that task and says that Susie is going to look in the actual location where it was moved to

Dr. Callaghan:                   [26:11] Because Susie was outside and couldn’t possibly know that?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [26:11]                   Right. And the five year old will know that she has a false belief and she’s going to look in the place where she left it. So that’s a classic task that’s been used and shown that there’s a shift between three and five. So you’ll get about half of the four year olds passing and half failing. So that idea that you’re holding in mind the idea of what another person knows was another inspiration for me to design a study where I said, okay, when do children hold in mind? One way to see what they think a symbol is, is to see whether or not they think another person would use a picture as a symbol. So what we did in that study was to have children play with two sets of toys that are all intermingled like fish and bugs and so you put about 12 items together and the child’s playing with them and then you say, okay, let’s put them away now and we’ll get some new toys.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [27:14]                   And they separate them; put all the ones that belong with this picture in this bowl and all the ones… And children are fairly good at that. And so they will do that kind of matching at about two and a half. Which is interesting because in other tests that I’ve done, two and a half year olds aren’t doing so well. But. But one of the things that is possible remember, is for them to use the verbal label they see my child-like drawing of a fish and they say fish and they put all the fish in there. So they put them in and then the experimentor holds up one set and says, these are my roots, my very favorite ones. I’m going to play with these. I’m just going out to get a drink. I’ll be right back and I’ll play with these when I get back.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [27:59]                   And so a second experimentor or hangs back with the child and says, Hey, you want to play a trick? And let’s do this. And they switch the items so that the fish go in the bug box and the bugs go in the fish box and the tops go on and, and you also mess up the location. So the child can’t just be making responses based on the location of the boxes. And what you do is you ask the question, So when John comes back, where’s he going to look for his favorite toys? And if the child realizes that John’s going to use the symbol of the item, then they should say he’s going to look for his favorite fish and the fish box. Uh, if they, uh, don’t understand that, that people use those as symbols and they will do well on that.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [28:52]                   So we did that and found a similar shift. Now that’s a problem because it could just be that this perspective taking this complex perspective taking that you have to do in theory of mind and in this task with pictures is just not capable younger, but children still understand the symbolic function of pictures. So what we did was to go to India, did the same task, found that Indian children pass the theory of mind task that I told you about the false belief type of thing, but they failed the picture one. And why did they do that? We had already been to India and done a mega study of symbolic development and found that children there were somewhat delayed their comprehension and production of pictorial symbols. And so we find that this theory of mind, which appears to be universally… It’s just part of social interaction universally, and children acquire that understanding between three and five, but the pictorial symbol is not universal.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [29:59]                   This is not something that’s stressed in the young lives of children and their social lives. So the reason that children are delayed and pictorial symbol understanding and production, and then this reflective ability to understand the function of a symbol and that’s also delayed, has nothing to do with cognitive capability. It has to do with the parenting goals, the socialization goals, the cultural values. What do you do and how do you shape young children? What are you preparing them for? And many people, many anthropologists who study children across different cultures have talked about the anomaly of the West in that parents playing with children; getting down, getting dirty with your child, and then really like this intense, socialization, cognitive training through play and so on. And the way that we value play as a stimulation for cognitive development. And it most certainly is, but there are other ways to stimulate cognitive development and those other ways may be more valued in other cultural settings.

Jen:                                      [31:15]                   So I went to sort of head towards a conclusion by bringing it back to what parents can do to support their children. So I’m imagining that the children probably don’t just flip a switch one day and one day they can’t engage in symbolic representation and the next day it suddenly all makes sense to them. They probably go through stages and I’m wondering what, if anything, parents could or should do to help children through that developmental process.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [31:43]                   There are a couple of people that did look very closely at stages. One of them is Claire Golomb and she has a wonderful book that might be in a university library, but it’s probably out of print, but she may have more recent books. I haven’t kept up with her publication, but The Child’s Creation of a Pictorial world by Claire Golomb is a Cambridge, no, California University press publication. A wonderful book. And another one is Ellen Winner did a book, must be almost 20 years ago now called Invented Worlds. Both of those researchers… And Ellen Winner has done a chapter and two subs…and let me just think about this. 2015… I think, 2007 edition, the sixth edition of that handbook that I just published something on a symbolic representation in, she published something on creativity that you might be interested in in looking up.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [32:54]                   Both of those researchers look at different stages in the emergence of comprehension of a pictorial symbol and production. So to help a child through, I think just encourage and pull back when children are finding it tedious, and you will find children, have different children, have different tolerances for intervention. One great researcher in language development, Michael Tomasello, he’s great in a lot of different areas, but one of the things he did very early on in his language development research was to identify two styles of parenting and one that’s called follow in and one that’s called directed. And he did a seminal study that showed that parents who follow into what their child is attending to and label it in what we’ve come to call the name game,Jerome Bruner coined that term a long time ago. The name game is when children start pointing their pre-verbal, they pointed things and say something like that, that, that, that, that, that, that.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [34:10]                   And they’re really asking what is that? Then they get into this, the fun of naming things and parents who follow into their chat whether your child is attending to and start labeling and expanding upon it and so on, have children to acquire language earlier than children who the other type was called directed. So a parent who wants to pull the child away from what they’re attending to and say, look at this, look at what this is and is attempting to teach them something is, is, uh, in, in the context of language. And early word learning is developing it relatively later. So I teach that a research as a really important study, really important way of thinking about how to interact with children. Um, I believe that, uh, the best way to interact is through that follow in. In the case of children, I try to see what they’re interested in, follow into what they’re doing and to support in that special zone that Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. It’s, it’s a zone….it’s a place of understanding that you can challenge children a little bit and they can learn from that challenge. But if you challenge them too much, they don’t know what you’re talking about. They don’t know what you’re driving at. They’ll learn nothing and they may get frustrated. So what a parent I think has to do is to do that, you know, think about following into your child’s interests and to be in that place with them in that zone with them and to try to capture where they are and maybe try to experiment a little bit with bringing them up a little higher to a higher level of understanding. And it’s, you know, it’s tricky, but life is tricky and we’re always trying to see, you know, what if I do this?

Dr. Callaghan:                   [36:19]                   So try that with your child and be patient. Learn from the child and, and try to adjust their level of understanding just a little tweak at a time and, and give them time. So I don’t think that there’s any magic answer to how do you support children other than you try to understand as much as you can the child’s mind where they are at different stages where they may be able to be a excited and shifted somewhat. Children love to understand things and so I would never discourage a parent from, from interacting, you know, with their child and helping them discover things about the world. But I would caution them not to push children beyond what they’re likely going to be capable of understanding.

Dr. Callaghan:                   [37:14]                   That makes a lot of sense. So thank you so much for your time. Professor Callaghan. It’s such an honor and a pleasure to speak with you and I want to remind listeners that all the references for this episode are available on my YourParentingMojo.com. Just check under episode four; Creativity and Artistic Ability in Young Children. Thank you so much and we’ll talk again soon.

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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