Zooming Out

Nancy Marie Brown
January 01, 2000

What could be simpler than a picture book? Especially those early books with very few words, like alphabet books.

"The assumption most people make is that the parent needs to read the word and explain what it means, but that the picture is easy, obvious, transparent," said Lisa Szechter, a graduate student in psychology at Penn State.

It's not. Work by Szechter's adviser, psychologist Lynn Liben, has shown that preschoolers have different ways of interpreting pictures. Show them an aerial view of Chicago, for example, and they might call an open field "a piece of cheese," while boats on Lake Michigan are "fish." They have no sense of scale: If those little things are fish, that's one big piece of cheese. Or take a black-and-white photo and ask a child to find the grass, as Liben did in another experiment.

"One child laughed at us," Szechter remembered. "‘There's no grass,' he said. ‘There's nothing green at all.'"

How do children learn to decipher pictures? The creators of TV shows, ads, and computer games assume that scale, perspective, and cropping are familiar ideas. That we won't mistake an "artist's conception" for the real thing and think flying saucers were sighted over Seattle. Or see a death-defying stunt in a magazine ad and decide to try it ourselves.

"Is it like language development?" Szechter wondered.

"Is there an equivalent of ‘motherese' for pictures? "

For her master's thesis, Szechter designed a study to help find out. She recruited three- and five-year-olds and asked their parents to read them a picture book in the lab. The book was called Zoom. It has no words, only pictures that Liben calls egodeictic—"That's a fancy label for them. It means they're ‘self-pointing.' They draw attention to themselves as representations, as pictures," Szechter said.

Zoom opens with an odd red shape, serrated or crenellated, and dotted with yellow spots. Turn the page and you see it's a rooster's comb.

How did the parents explain that?

One mother, Szechter recalled, flipped back to page one (the red shape) and leaned well forward toward her son, saying, "It's like: Here's Timmy!" Then on to page two (the rooster), saying, as she leaned way back, "Here's more of Timmy!"

"She was using her body to zoom in and out," said Szechter, "to give him the idea."

On page three, the picture zooms again, to show two children looking out a window at the rooster. Page five, still working on the concept of scale, shows the farmhouse and yard, with pigs and chickens, geese, a horse, and a cat.

"The parents of three-year-olds spent a lot of time pointing at things and labeling them: ‘This is a pig. This is a horse,'" Szechter noticed, instead of drawing attention to the larger concept.

Then, two zooms past the pig, a pair of large hands appear in the picture. Surprise! "The parents tried to be into it for the kids, to show surprise, even though they'd seen the book before. There was one child who looked at that page and said, ‘Oh!' and the father smiled and said, ‘What happened?' and the child said, ‘We moved farther back!' He thought she had noticed the hands. It was a really rare child who said right away, ‘Oh, I thought it was a real farm, but it's only a toy.'"

A few pages further on, there's a second "surprise": The toy farm and the girl playing with it turn out to be in a picture on a catalogue held by another (much bigger) child.

"You're constantly having to reinterpret the pictures," said Szechter. "Usually in children's books you're going past the idea of the picture as a representation to the question of what it is. These books force you to look at the picture itself."

The question for psychologists like Szechter and Liben is, "Are these kinds of images confusing to kids? Do the kids blur the referent and the representation? Or could these images help kids learn, could they generate discussion about what it means to be a picture?

"For instance, you could read Zoom by just looking at the things that change. Is that a real pig? It changes to a toy. Is it a real toy pig? It changes to a picture of a toy.

"It's mind-boggling. A lot of the parents said, ëI don't think my child is going to get it.' But it seemed that the more enthusiastic the parent was, the more the child did seem to get it."

Currently, Szechter is analyzing her data to see if certain strategies had more effect than others on the children's understanding of the zooming (or scale) concept. After the Zoom reading (and before the juice and cookies) she tested how much the children had learned by having them put in order a series of pictures of a fountain taken at successively greater distances. They also had to explain the difference between two pictures of a tulip garden, one taken close up, the other from farther away.

"I can't make any conclusions yet," she said, "but I think there's a lot in the way the parent introduces the book. One said, ‘Here's this book, Zoom. That's the only word in the book.' Another one said, ‘Here's this book, Zoom. Do you know what ‘zoom' means?'"

Nancy Marie Brown

Lisa Szechter is a graduate student in psychology. Her adviser is Lynn Liben, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts and director of the Child Study Center, 450 Moore Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1718; liben@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2000