Sep. 14, 2007 A large part of enjoying a good book is getting immersed in the life of a character, especially a character's thoughts and feelings. A new University of Waterloo psychology study shows that preschoolers can already perform this impressive perspective-taking feat and get into the minds of story characters.
The study used an innovative approach to explore children's storytelling ability, focusing on how well they comprehend stories instead of how well they tell them. The study, entitled The Emergence of the Ability to Track a Character's Mental Perspective in Narrative, was published in the July issue of Developmental Psychology.
"Children around the ages of three to five are fairly limited in their verbal abilities, and many previous studies have relied on methods requiring children to tell a story orally, potentially underestimating what they can do," says lead researcher Daniela O'Neill, who did the study with graduate student Rebecca Shultis.
O'Neill, an associate professor of developmental psychology and head of the UW centre for child studies, says that's why the study introduced an innovative approach to look at children's storytelling ability. It offers a new method to evaluate storytelling ability that can pick up differences in the abilities of the younger children.
"I believe children as young as age three to five are developing in important ways with respect to their narrative ability, we just need new ways to look at it."
"In essence, rather than looking at how children are able to tell stories, it looked at how children understand stories, and whether, like adults, children build up a 'mental model' of the story," O'Neill says. "By this, I mean, are children, like adults, able to build up a model of the story in their mind and 'step into the mind,' so to speak, of a character.
"It turns out, from the results of our study, that indeed this is one important way in which children appear to be developing with respect to their understanding of stories during the preschool years."
The researchers had the children listen to a story about a character who was in one location, but was thinking about doing something in another. "Tracking the thoughts of characters to different locations they are thinking about is something we do very easily as adults and really is an impressive perspective-taking feat," O'Neill says.
"But can children also do this" It turns out that five-year-olds can, pretty much like adults, but that three-year-olds have much more difficulty doing this."
The youngest children tracked a character if he or she physically moved between two locations, but they did not seem able to track a change in location if it only happens in the character's mind.
In the study, two models were placed in front of the children depicting the two locations -- a barn and a field. In both locations there was a cow. Children were told that the character was in the barn, but was thinking about feeding the cow in the field. Then, immediately after this sentence, children were asked to point to the cow.
"This is an ambiguous request, since there are two cows present," O'Neill explains.
"But we hypothesized that if children were tracking the thought of the character to the new thought-about location (the field), then they would point to the cow there. If they were only able to think about the character where the character physically is, then they would point to the cow in the physical location (the barn)."
It turns out five-year-olds pointed to the cow in the thought-about location and three-year-olds pointed to the cow in the character's physical location, and only switched if told the character had actually gone to the other location.
"We are excited about these results because they help us to better understand how children's narrative ability is changing and developing very early on in a new way we didn't know about before when studies focused mainly on having children tell stories which they are really not very good at yet," O'Neill says.
"Children with delays in their language use also often have difficulty with comprehending and producing narratives," O'Neill says. "This can become quite an issue once children reach school and are faced with many more tasks that require good story comprehension skills."
The study potentially provides a new way to understand some of these difficulties and differences in perspective-taking ability that may hinder story comprehension and production.
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