Toddlers: Meaning-Making (page 4)
Between approximately eighteen months and three years of age, nearly everything assumes meaning to the child. Wolf and Gardner (1980) referred to this as a stage of meaning-making, because much of the learning that takes place consists of constructing meaning through interaction with others, and through the exploration of objects and events. The dominant activity of the very young child involves emotional contact, the manipulation of objects, the development of basic forms of communication, and a simple knowledge of the world. Gradually the child's "egocentric" view is replaced by an increased ability to distinguish between self, others, and objects. Their actions become the basis for beginning forms of aesthetic judging and performing, and their artistic products reflect direct, physical communication; generally these products are spirited, original, and aesthetically appealing.
Toddlers can relate personal experiences to others, such as telling Grandma about learning how to float a "leaf boat" in the puddle in the backyard. As language becomes more fluent and articulate, young children will enthusiastically include gesture as they speak. Listening to stories becomes an enjoyable pastime for toddlers, they enjoy humming simple melodies, and the expressiveness of dance is explored with delight. In drawing, young children will attempt to depict a person or an object, but many of the salient features may not be recognizable to an adult. In music, they will have a notion of whether a song gets louder or softer, faster or slower, or higher or lower, but may not always capture the exact pitch or dynamic features. When building with blocks, they may be aware of the general size and volume ratios of the blocks, but not be concerned about precise quantities.
This is a period of symbolic play, where objects are treated representationally. A clump of mud may be used as a cookie, a block of wood as a horse, or a pillow as a doll. The symbolic play of toddlers, like their language, often is related to specific events and includes statements such as "go swimming," or "want ice cream." They will use dramatic props such as bottles, blankets, and tea sets to play with their teddy bears or with others. For many, favorite events and situations often are replayed over and over again, such as suppertime, building a road in the sand, or bathing a baby. In addition, their use of language to structure events can be activated by other intellectual domains, such as spatial, musical, or bodily-kinesthetic forms of expression. For example, a child involved in block play may be reminded of a gas station by the shape of the structure. Soon, toys nearby might be incorporated into imaginary play built around a gas station, and the child's body and voice will represent the movements and sounds of cars and trucks, and include song or sound effects, accompanied with action.
Compared to symbolic play, in the visual realm of learning, young children's drawings often are not so obviously representational. They are developing a vocabulary of lines and shapes, and discrete forms or enclosures, such as, squares, circles, and crosses (Kellogg, 1969; Matthews, 1994a, b, 1997). By the end of their third year, various "aggregations"—combined forms—often appear, like sun shapes, or circles divided into quarters or eighths, like a pie, which is called a mandala. Eventually these symbols will relate to real things with which children are already familiar. For example, a child may use mandalas in the windows of his house. In the meantime, nonrepresentational visual forms will be driven more by young children's desires to work out graphic language than to depict an object or event.
Naming of drawings, termed proto-symbolism, is often prompted by the appearance of the finished product. In other words, a child might draw something that looks like something he or she might recognize, such as a window, and the child might then announce "look, window." Names for two- and three-dimensional art works often reflect the child's interpretations of properties in the material. For example, the color and texture of paint might suggest to a child smoke, rain, or fire, whereas clay might suggest food or animal figures; blocks might represent dishes or tools and, later, buildings.
Toddlers use art materials in a way that often combines creating marks on paper with creating sound and making gestures. They derive pleasure from making marks that seem to represent paths on a page, like footprints (Matthews, 1997; Winner, 1986). Many parents and teachers have watched a toddler use a crayon to draw a squiggly line on a piece of paper while making "vrooom vrooom" sounds. Through such experiences, the pathway of the car itself and the mark it makes on the paper becomes the symbol, similar to the way in which the child would move a toy car across the floor during a play experience. However, the final, visual result or mark on the paper—which the child might even call "car"—looks simply like a squiggly line on a piece of paper. To the adult who has not seen the toddler drawing and creating sound effects, the name or title will make little sense. We must recognize that, in this case, the movement of the crayon is the meaningful experience for the toddler.
Similarly, young children begin to learn how to "read" pictures in books, on the walls of the child-care center, at the supermarket, and in basic symbolic letters or icons (e.g., the golden arches of McDonalds). When listening to an adult reading a story, young children often become engrossed with the pictures, point to them, and name them as enthusiastically as if they were real objects. For example, a child might point to a picture of a bottle, hold an imaginary bottle near the mouth, and pretend to suck. Musically, young children seem to focus predominantly on the quality and impressiveness of the sound of an instrument. Their musical creations are unpredictable sound explorations, and the elements of music, such as a steady underlying pulse, melodic structure (e.g., a tune), or rhythmic pattern—are not easy to recognize. Nonetheless, while their musical productions may appear random, often their musical explorations are purposeful, focused, and aesthetic. In similar ways, there dances and dramatic play often involve repetition of movement and exploration of thoughts and feelings that may be on a different plane from that of the adult's mind, but often involve a great deal of purpose and pleasure.
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