Anthropomorphism

It is a vast and complex subject, as old as storytelling itself in current and past civilizations. This ability we have to project human features and qualities to non-human animals, plants and things is so omnipresent, we just have to glance at gamer avatars, or our sport team mascots to measure its far reaching impact. It can be found in basically any art form.

A short blog post cannot dive into the intricate complexity and ramifications of anthropomorphism. This post is meant to highlight the fact that some researchers with various backgrounds are increasingly questioning how the, let’s call them traditional storytellers, are making use of anthropomorphism. So, parents, writers, illustrators, playwrights, and even clerics, pay attention because a diverse group of literary critiques, cognitive scientists, social theorists and ecologists want to talk about anthropomorphism as a double edged sword.

On one hand, there are the well-known benefits, as mentioned by Nigerian researcher Helen Adhuze, in an article titled The face and phases of anthropomorphism in children literature, “Anthropomorphized characters boost empathy in children.  This relational attitude is facilitated through the human imagination operational at the various stages of human development. Essentially,  anthropomorphism  is  a  human attitude  developed  as  a  child  and  maintained through adulthood.  It is a specific human attitude, not a childish mistake.” (Adhuze, Journal of Language, Literature and Culture, Vol. 1, no. 1, 2022)

Growing up, we become experts “anthropomorphers.” Parents and educators know too well how anthropomorphic characters can be efficient attention grabbers, and motivation boosters for children engagement. For example, take this school activity developed by Creative Exchange, a collaboration project of the England Arts Council and Durham University (United Kingdom). The activity shows “How to use anthropomorphism to release children’s creativity,” to develop their imagination and collaborative skills. The vast majority of contents in elementary school libraries include anthropomorphic images.

Not everyone agrees that anthropomorphism has only benefits, and some give it a thumb down, pointing to what may loom in its shadow. We find much of these warnings in an exhibition catalogue, of Animals Are Us: Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature; Celebrating  the Peter Solomon Collection. The exhibition was presented in 2021 at the Houghton Library, in Cambridge. The catalogue by Thomas Hyry and several others, offers a great reading experience, and includes awesome illustrations. Four contributors penned the chapter “The Pitfalls and Potential of Anthropomorphism in children Literature.” It shows clearly how the practice more than often perpetuates stereotypes and demonstrates blatant lack of representation and diversity. We cannot help, it seems, but project both our virtues and flaws into whatever we want to make more human. The authors raise important red flags, and see greater awareness as an important step for better storytelling.

They close with a glimpse of optimism, saying that as fields such as childhood studies, psychology, and literacy education developed their understanding of the child reader, children’s literature also evolved to position children as more purposeful, thoughtful, and agentive”(Animals Are Us exhibition catalogue, p.23)

In 2014, psychologists Patricia Ganea, Caitlin Canfield, and Kadria Simons-Ghafari investigated and concluded that anthropomorphism will actually inhibit children’s ability to learn actual facts about the animal world. It is, they argued, as if the fantastic nature of anthropomorphic characters “may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.” In their article Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals (Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, 2014), they explain that there is a range of anthropomorphism that goes between a completely fantastic and a partially realistic characterization. They saw that when selecting books for their students, teachers tend to favor less realistic images, and rarely choose books where animal characters are shown in their natural environment. This, they say, may bring children to a lack of understanding of biological aspects of animals. In other words, children should be told when they are exposed to anthropomorphized creatures, told that it is not factual information, even when this might seems obvious to adults.

If you think educators, psychologists and literary critics are the only ones interested in the subject, think twice. Scholars in computer sciences, as well as religious studies are also showing interest in how children go about anthropomorphism. See what some of them have to say in this amazing book When Children Draw Gods A Multicultural and Interdisciplinary Approach to Children’s Representations of Supernatural Agents, published by Springer in 2023, as part of a book series New Approach to the Scientific Study of Religion. The chapter by Gregory Dessart and Pierre-Yves Brandt, Humanness and Non-Humanness in Children’s Drawings of God: A Case Study from French-Speaking Switzerland is of particular interest. It presents a case study with a focus on de-anthropomorphization as a progressive process. According to them, children undertaking religious education could be less inclined to portrait God with human traits.

As I reflect about the scientific articles cited above, isn’t it interesting that ecologically minded educator and religion educator might each hope that children be less impacted by anthropomorphism each for a different motive, the first for giving access to biological facts, and the other for less human-like representations of the divine? The socio-emotional power of anthropomorphism is immense. Is it too strong or misleading? It is an important question.

You want more anthropomorphic images? See this quickly read, well-illustrated article by Meagan Jones, on the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies’ website: Degrees of Humanity: Anthropomorphism and its development in children’s book illustration (2013).

portrait, landscape, religion, crayons, paper, 1960s
Great (detail) as in God is Great. By Leo, c1969. Source: CDIC-CIDE.

Children characters in comics

Something is brewing in literary studies, specifically among the comics and graphic novel scholars. Could it be the genre’s reckoning with its lasting and deep connection to childhood? If so, this is a good sign, as it reflects the maturity of the field, which painstakingly overcame the stigma of a literature of lesser importance. Stigma it endured for too long in the past.

At the centre of this momentum is a dynamic group of researchers, led by Maaheen Ahmed, at the Ghent University (Belgium). They initiated informed discussions about children characters in European comics, and the influence childhood had, and still have on writers and illustrators. They put in place the appropriately named COMICS project. In their own word, the project “advances the hypothesis that children in comics are distinctive embodiments of the complex experience of modernity, channeling and tempering modern anxieties and incarnating the freedom denied to adults.”

The instigators will host a conference this September 18 and 19th in Ghent: Comics, Children and Childishness. A rare coming together of literary criticism and the history of childhood, it promises to be an innovating event.

Another comics studies conference, this one covering a wide range of contemporary concerns, is to take place this week on July 27-29th, at the University of North Texas. Themed Comics on the Margins, it is hosted by the Comics Studies Society.

To follow progress in comics studies, see the academic journal The Comics Grid.

Source: Gyphy on Pinterest, 2023.

World Children’s Day 2022

Every year we like to raise our voice, along with other organizations all over the world, in support of broader awareness of the rights of children. During economic downturns, ecological disasters and military conflicts, children are among the most vulnerable and suffer greatly.

We take this opportunity to introduce you to a group of university researchers who dedicate their efforts to bringing greater protection to children. Their work deserves much respect. The Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory on the Rights of the Child is based at the University of Ottawa. Their essay competition will be of interest to undergraduate and graduate students. They publish a blog in English and in French with inspiring and accessible articles.

Play. By Yvon, c1965. Source: CDIC-CIDE.

No small matter

Children’s drawings can be a lot of fun and will, more often than not, bring a smile to the adult who encounters them. There is however one thing that experts seem to agree on, and it is that these images are not to be taken lightly, most of all when it comes to sharing with a child. As children reveal themselves candidly, it is everyone’s responsibility to welcome self-expression in a safe and supportive environment.

We share this video presentation recorded in October 2020, and produced by the Discovery Museum (Boston), in which Dr. Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares her findings on the subject.

The Psychology of Artistic Behavior in Children. By Discovery Museum. Source: Youtube, 2022.

TEDx Talks also has a few short conferences on children’s drawings. This lively one, The Power of Children’s Art, by Dr Martha Skogen, designer, researcher, with a Phd is in Visual Communication from NTNU, has also a lot to show and to think about.

Blob post

It may have taken hundreds of millions of years, but the blob is finally reaching its long overdue fame, at the highest level. A blob has joined the International Space Station crew last month. Its reaction to a micro-gravity environment is under scientific scrutiny. Find out about the educational scope of the experiment in this short cnet.com article by Leslie Katz.

Many of us who love to draw, have of course had more than one encounter with the blob. The fun colorful two-dimensional one, that is. While you keep a curious eye on the ISS experiment with the yellow creature, revisit the many drawing resources about blob art on the web. Teachers will appreciate this Blob-Art Challenge presented by MarieLee Singoorie Trempe, on Pinnguaq. If you are more the hyperrealist type, make sure to see this Stephanie Villiotis’ article “How to draw a realistic blob of paint..” on Make A Mark Studios. We will definitely add some of these instructional video to our playlists. Marvel Comics’ Blob must be so proud!

Blob, by Audrey Dussutour / CRCA / CNRS. Source: CNRS.fr, 11 september 2021.

Emotional geographic

The connection between children’s drawings and education, art education or developmental psychology may appear to be a given. At the Collection, we like to argue that tighter connections to anthropology, history and ethnography would benefit the advancement of knowledge.

The interest in children’s drawings occasionally emerge from unexpected places. Alina Gabriela Tamas, who teaches in a kindergarten, made a surprising and stimulating connection between children’s drawings and the study of geography. Published in the Romanian Review of Geographical Education (Vol. III no. Feb. 2014), her article presents an analysis of 42 drawings of trees, by 21 pre-school children aged 4 to 7. It is concise and illustrated with all the related reproductions. Who would have thought that we should throw geography in the mix too?

Hello Tree, by Sahana, 2020. Source: CDIC-CIDE, 2021.

Post-pandemic schools

For safety reasons, we are using schools very differently during the pandemic. Air circulation, room capacity and group transitions all had to be reconsidered. Teachers use more electronics than ever, namely for virtual teaching and so do students. The need for breaks from screen time is felt by everyone. Each time the school goes to lockdown and reopens is an opportunity to reconsider whether we prefer to attend school from home mask-free, or at the school masked all day.

Will our school buildings feel increasingly obsolete as the post-pandemic era will set in and we gradually wake up from this collective nightmare? That is a question school trustees, policy makers and unions will certainly be addressing and debating. It is important that parents and their children also take part in this discussion.

Architects as much as anyone else should make their voice heard and encourage new ways to envision future learning spaces that are more adaptable to transitions from regular use to crisis situation. We came across the interesting website on architecture and education, edited by Adam Wood and Emma Dyer. They present over twenty interviews with fellow architects, teachers and other education professional on the subject. They also have a page on school museums around the world, like the Museum of Schools and Children’s Book, in Turin (in Italian). Revisiting what schools were like in the distant past, is one way to reconsider what they should look and feel like in the future.

Header banner, website. Museum of School and Children’s Book, Turin. Source: Fondazione Tancredi di Barolo, 28 February 2021.

The eye of the beholder

Thanks to their own perseverance and that of dedicated educators, therapists and policy makers, visually impaired and blind people have been increasingly able to appreciate the visual arts. Not only as spectators but also as creators. It will be a surprise to many that visually impaired and blind people can also draw. They do and it can even be quite interesting for everyone in a classroom to discover some of their techniques and materials. It can be a real eye opener for everyone and foster empathy and inclusion in the community.

A good place to start for educators is the well established Art Beyond Sight organization which has been bringing “arts and culture to all” for well over 30 years. They published a Handbook for Museums and Educators full of inspiring sample programming descriptions, though it is undated.

Teacher turned consultant/publisher Carmen Willings also has much to offer on her website Teaching Students With Visual Impairments. Registration is required but free. Jump straight to the Creating Tactile Graphics page and see for yourself.

Australia: Annual rainfall, sample tactile drawing. Source: The Braille Authority of North America. Guidelines and Standards for Tactile Graphics, 8 February 2021.

Safe, healthy, stimulating schools

Over the past few months, educators around the world have witnessed first hand the impact of the pandemic on their students and families. They know that the adaptation and accessibility of education during COVID-19 will be determinant for the post-pandemic learning years. International organizations such as Brookings are among public education supporters for strong public policies and investments. See their recent article by Emiliana Vegas on the subject and make sure your local policy makers read it too.

Investing in public education worldwide is now more important than ever. By Emiliana Vegas. Source: brookings.edu, 5 July 2020

Everyone should draw more

It is never repeated too often. Drawing is a tool, is a learning tool and enhances life for everyone. The George Lucas Educational Foundation too says so, in one of their many interesting videos: The powerful effect of drawing on learning.

George Lucas Educational Foundation. Source: Edutopia.org, 17 May 2020.
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