6. How Toddlers See Our Bodies? Play Dough Experiments

This is an article in the series “Drawing as it develops“, which includes a study of my daughter Amie’s drawings from 16 months onwards (this is the sixth article in that sequence), as well as Some Theory, Tips for teaching drawing to a very young child, and a growing bibliography.

  • Amie at 23-24 months: representation?

After researching and writing about very young children’s drawings and how they might be said to “represent“, I was careful to heed the warning not to press adult representational values upon them.

Still, I was curious about how Amie perceives human bodies and animal bodies. Does she really see “tadpoles” and arms coming out of our heads? Is she really better at representing animals than humans?

I couldn’t find research online or in the literature that answers these questions with regard to very young children, say, a 23 or 24-month-old. That is because the researchers are intent on drawing, but 24-month-olds still don’t have the fine motor skills to control a crayon well enough.

But they are quite good at manipulating play dough!

  • Getting familiar with play dough

After being familiar with play dough (its feel, different colors, plasticity) for a couple of months, and imitating my attempts to make things out of it – simple things like balls, plates, cups, heads with faces, and little gnome-like men – I thought she was ready.

  • The experiment at 23 months

Then I asked her: do you want to make a man?

Amie (enthusiastically) : “Yes!”

I took the ball of dough and tore off a chunk, rolled it into a ball and flattened it somewhat, then gave it to her, saying: “This is the man’s head. Where are you going to put it?”

“Here,” she said, and put it in the middle of the space, punching it a couple of times to make it stick and to flatten it further.

Then I gave her another chunk, saying: “This is the body. Where will you put that?”

She put it next to the head, to the left of it (this she repeated in the other experiments), slightly touching.

Then I rolled out and gave her, one by one, a leg, the other leg, an arm, the other arm, and so on with two hands two feet, a nose, two eyes and two ears.

I gave her lots of time to consider where to put it. I never questioned her placement (“Really? There?“), though while handing over the body parts I would sometimes mention, in passing, how we have two legs, and two arms, and one nose. I never suggested, though, where those are. I wanted to see her perception, pure, uninfluenced by mine.

  • The dough man

This is what the man ended up looking like:

amie’s play dough man July 2007 - (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Surprisingly, his legs are coming out of his torso. I really enjoyed the way she piled the facial elements all on top of one another and then pressed them all together.

  • Play dough “guy” at 24 months

We repeated the experiment a month later. This time she insisted she would make a guy. “I’m gonna make it real. A real guy!” She repeated this intent to make it “real” several times throughout the experiment: what could it mean?

The “guy” ended up looking like this:

Amie’s play dough “guy’ August 2007

He combines several developmental stages: he is a typical “tadpole” in that his arms grow out of his head, but his arms and legs placed in series are more like the “transitional” drawings.

  • Play dough dog

One of the observations is that children get better at drawing animals than at human bodies. This is supposed to be evidence for the contention that, when they draw humans, they figure in how they feel their own bodies to be composed (part of that is that our arms grow out of our heads). They don’t associate animal bodies with any such personal feelings, and are thus more “open” to how they “really” look.

So I told Amie: “Let’s make a dog!”

Amie: “A puppy, a doggie!”

This is what it looked like when she was done:

Amie’s play dough dog of August 2007 - (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Well! There’s the head, with holes for eyes and mouth and ears (and then some), the torso, and on top of that (the holes she had made came in handy) four legs sticking up. On the side: a tail. Pretty realistic, I’d say! More realistic than the “guy”.

You can place comments here.

UPDATE: Amie has started drawing tadpoles. Read about it here:

  1. [blog entry] Amie’s First Tadpole Drawings: Amie at 2 years 4 months
  2. [blog entry] Tadpoles’ Mouths Move Outside Face: Amie at 2 years 5 months
  3. [blog entry] Tadpoles Also Have Hands and Feet: Amie at 2 years 5 months
  4. [blog entry] The End of the Tadpoles?: Amie at 2 years 5 months

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