Tuesday, March 09, 2010


Something interesting I saw in my friend's child development book:

The universal tadpole shape that children use to draw their first picture of a person:

The tadpole soon becomes an anchor for greater detail as arms, fingers, toes, and facial features sprout from the basic shape. By the end of the preschool years, children produce many complex, differentiated pictures... A major milestone in drawing occurs when children use lines to represent the boundaries of objects. This enables 3 and 4 year olds to draw their first picture of a person... Western parents spend much time promoting 2 and 3 year old's language and make believe play but relatively little time showing them how they can use drawings to represent the world.

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Drawings by non-schooled 10 - 15 year old children of the Jimi Valley of Papua New Guinea (a region with no indigenous pictorial art) when they were asked to draw a human figure for the first time:

Many produced non representational scribbles and shapes (a), "stick" figures (b), or "contour" figures (c). Compared with the Western tadpole form, the Jimi "stick" and "contour" figures emphasize the hands and feet. Otherwise, the drawings of these older children resemble those of young preschoolers.

It's interesting to see literal examples of how culture changes and shapes peoples view of the world. I wonder if children in cultures with pictorial traditions draw the tadpole shapes because they've seen other drawings of people before, because their parents demonstrate something similar as an example, or because the giant head of the tadpole -- an enclosed, autonomous system that could just as easily stand for ego and vanity as it could for physical identity and individuality -- represents the way their culture sees itself (or people in general)? Or is it simply because they've been taught the function of the brain and value (or overvalue) its importance? Not only is the head left open in Jimi Valley drawing "c", but everything from the head down connects openly to the land below. (Granted, this could simply be because they don't understand the concept of lines the same way most people do, though some of the Jimi Valley children clearly do -- see drawing "b"). The hands and feet are usually more important than the head and face in the Jimi drawings, which seems to show identification with a more physical existence, and one that has more emphasis on community than on individuals.

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