Different strokes

August 9, 1996

What makes Aborigine children draw people as semi-circles when western children draw stick figures? ask Maureen Cox and Rosemary Hill

By the age of about two or two-and-a-half, most children have begun to scribble. Usually they confine themselves to bits of paper but sometimes they get over-exuberant and start on the table and the walls as well. It is not long before recognisable forms start to emerge from these early scribbles, and the human figure is one of the earliest. But these early figures are rather weird. They have heads, perhaps with some facial features, and some legs. And often that is all. If arms are included then they are attached to either side of the head. It is striking that the torso has been missed out even though these very young artists know full well that people do have bodies. They also know that our arms do not really come out of the sides of our heads.

Nearly all children in western society draw these peculiar figures, which researchers call "tadpole figures" or simply "tadpoles". During the nursery-school years or just after there is a shift from the so-called "tadpole" form to a more conventional figure: gradually more parts are added, the proportions become more realistic, and the child experiments with different orientations, depicting the figure in profile and in action.

These developments in children's figure drawing, and indeed in their drawing in general, seem to be so regular and so widely observed that it has often been regarded as a natural reflection of the way the developing child sees the world. But, just because we see a similar pattern of drawing development in a number of western cultures, it does not follow that this pattern is necessarily "natural" in some innate or inevitable sense. And, in fact, if we look carefully at a number of non-western cultures or even into our own historical past we can see that the pattern of development is not always the same.

Marjorie and Brent Wilson at Pennsylvania State University have investigated changing styles in children's drawings over historical time. In the 40-year period between about 1883 and 1923, the two-eyed profile was very prevalent in the United States and Western Europe. In fact, it was considered to be a distinct stage between a front-view figure and a profile view. But, this two-eyed profile then sharply declined and by the 1950s it had disappeared altogether. Why it started and why it disappeared is not clear, but it is argued that it was not some natural stage in children's drawing development after all but that children were copying the style from their classmates, and it simply spread in this local way as do children's games which spread through an age group and down to younger children.

When we compare western children's figures with those in many other cultures we find a number of differences. For instance, children draw the torso, to take one example, many different ways. It might be rounded (typical in western cultures), stick-like (in some African cultures), rectangular (in some Islamic cultures), triangular (again in some African cultures), and so on. These differences might reflect physical differences between peoples or the shape of their particular national dress, but it is more likely that they are simply different local solutions to the problem of what basic shape you should choose to draw the torso. There probably is no one best way. The torso is sort of rounded, it is sort of square, and long, and triangular where it tapers into the waist. So, all these are reasonable solutions.

To western eyes, the totally different ways of representation of some cultures do not look very realistic. The symbols used in Australian Aboriginal art may appear abstract to us, but once decoded they provide a key to the Aborigines' rich culture. For example, semi-circles, or horse-shoe shapes, represent people; larger semi-circles represent the more important people or elders. Other symbols, such as a wavy line, can represent a river or a snake, and concentric circles may be a well, a campsite or perhaps a fire.

Aboriginal children are not cut off from adults' production of art. It is something that ordinary adults do within a community's ceremonial life and they also illustrate their storytelling by drawing characters and events in the sand around the campfires. From an early age the children are exposed to the Aboriginal symbols and see how they are drawn and when they themselves start to draw they use these symbols.

But they also attend school and are exposed to western images which they may also include in their drawings. In seven-year-old Kylie's drawing (left top) all the figures are horseshoe shapes. They are all women, indicated by a planting stick and a baby carrier beside each one. They are meeting at a well and we can see animal tracks there too. All her human figures in this picture are drawn in the Aboriginal way. Eight-year-old Stephanie's picture (left below) illustrates how some children mix the Aboriginal and the western style.

Children's artwork is a reflection of how they see and understand the world. It does not progress in isolation but is influenced by the images already used by the people in their culture.

Cultural influences on children's art is the topic of a television programme produced by Rosemary Hill for the Open University's course on child development and shown on BBC2 earlier this week. It was filmed at Yuendumu, an Aboriginal settlement of about 1,000 Warlpiri people, about 350 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs.

The political history and treatment of the Aboriginal people by successive Australian governments has been complicated and often destructive. Through it all the people at Yuendumu have managed to maintain a strong tribal unity and an active ceremonial life.

Aboriginal cultural and religious life centres on the dreaming or dreamtime - a period beyond living memory when the creator ancestors and supernatural beings (such as the Rainbow Serpents, the Lightning Men, the Wagilag Sisters, the Tingari and Wandjina) travelled in both human and non-human form across the unshaped world creating everything in it and laying down the laws of social and religious behaviour.

But the dreaming is not merely a guide for living or an agent of social control, rather it provides the ideological framework by which human society retains a harmonious equilibrium with the universe. It is a charter, a mandate that has been sanctified over time. An individual's links with the ancestral beings in the dreaming and his or her spiritual identity are expressed through ritual songs, dances, objects and designs (see Peter Sutton's Dreamings (1991, Viking)). The events of the Dreaming provide the great themes of Aboriginal art practised not only by "artists" but also by ordinary adult members of the community.

Maureen Cox is reader in psychology, University of York and author of Children's Drawings (Penguin, 1992). Rosemary Hill is a producer, BBC Education/Open University Production Centre.

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