Spatial Treatment in Childrenís Drawings:
Why do Japanese children draw in particular ways?

Masami Toku
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1998, Spring



 In the study of childrenís artistic development, there are two main issues: one is  universality in the pictorial world (pictorial presentation, composition, spatial treatment, and so on);  another is called non-universality, which is social-cultural influences which appear in childrenís drawings (See Examples, Alland, 1983; Arnhein, 1954, 1969; Golomb, 1992; Goodnow, 1977; Kellogg, 1969) . The debate has been over which is predominant in childrenís development; however, the debate is no longer meaningful because we do not doubt that these two issues interact strongly. The debate in artistic development should be what kinds of social-cultural influences tend to emerge depending on the particular culture based on the universality in the pictorial world with childrenís physical growth (motor skills) and cognitive development (cognitive abilities).
 The purpose of this study was to examine what kinds of social-cultural influences tend to emerge in the spatial presentation of childrenís drawings depending on the particular culture. How and why such particular social-cultural factors influence childrenís cognitive development was examined to consider a proper  art curriculum to support childrenís cognitive development by understanding the effect of cultural and social influences on childrenís visual-spatial abilities. If cultural and social backgrounds affect childrenís cognitive development positively or negatively, it is crucial to consider the kinds of art curricula that should be developed to help childrenís visual thinking skills reflect cognitive development, by examining the effects of social-cultural factors.

 This paper is divided into three parts: 1) the importance of studying spatial treatment in childrenís drawings; 2) the reviews of the pilot study of cross-cultural analysis of Japanese and US children that I did from 1993 through 1995; 3) Japanese childrenís characteristics in the spatial treatment from 1996 through 1997.

1. The importance of studying spatial treatment in childrenís drawings

 As human abilities of cognition, how infants start to perceive depth and how they experience space as three-dimensional  are fascinating subjects in developmental psychology. In the study of artistic development, how children start to draw space/depth on two-dimensional surfaces, such as paper, a wall, the ground, etc., and develop techniques of spatial presentation that allow them to depict relationships in a realistic manner is an important subject in the study of drawing.

 We live in a three-dimensional world. We are able to perceive depth, length, and height without learning how to perceive these qualities from others. In addition, with physical growth (motor skills) and mental growth (cognitive abilities), infants start to scribble and eventually create their own pictorial worlds in drawings. In the process of creating a pictorial world, we can see a developmental direction in spatial presentation in childrenís drawings. How do children know how to create space/depth on flat surfaces by using techniques such as relative size, relative density, relative position, overlapping, and, finally, linear perspectives?  Do children invent such techniques by themselves or learn from someone else -- parents, teachers, peers, or visual models? Is there a universality in the process of creating space on two-dimensional surfaces? When and how do social and cultural influences appear in spatial presentation in childrenís drawings? Which is dominant, universality or non-universality (culture specificity), in childrenís drawings? Does this dominance shift with age?

 Although we take for granted the possibility of creating convincing illusions of space on two-dimensional surfaces, we have to realize that the techniques used to create space were just invented after the Renaissance period, in the fifteenth century. Until the Renaissance period, even adults who were artists did not have such techniques to create space on two-dimensional surfaces. Did children living in the fifteenth century know the techniques, although adults did not know? It seems unlikely. It is easy to imagine that there should be some differences between the drawings of children in the twentieth century and children in the fifteenth century and in the ways children create space, although we have few records of childrenís drawings in the fifteenth century. Furthermore, the new methods of creating space in the Renaissance period were just spread over Western world of Europe in those days. In Asia, Africa, Australia, and other areas, artists invented and used other techniques to create space on two-dimensional surfaces. For example, it is well known that Japanese artists created a new technique in the fourteenth century called "a bird-eyeís view (looking obliquely down from sky like birds when they are flying)" to express space/depth on two-dimensional surfaces such as screens, hanging scrolls, and sliding doors. How and when universality and non-universality are interwoven in the process of creating space in childrenís drawings is an interesting and important subject in the study of artistic development.

2. The pilot study of cross-cultural analysis of artistic ability between US and Japanese children (1993 - 1995).

 In a pilot study for Cross-cultural Analysis of Childrenís Artistic Development, about 1,000 drawings were collected from mainly two populations in Chicago and Champaign, and two cultures, which were Japanese and US children from 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades. There were significant differences in spatial development for the two populations as a result of analysis based on Eisnerís 14 categories that he constructed in 1967 to see the differences between advantaged and disadvantaged children in the US  (Eisner, 1967, 1972).

 One difference is the speed of spatial development. In moving from one category to another, Japanese children are faster than US children and they showed a tendency to choose more complicated methods of creating space in their drawings than did US children. The reason is seemingly obvious. Unlike art education in the US, Japan has adopted a national curriculum, which means no matter where they are born, Japanese children have to take art class as a required course as well as other subjects from 1st through 9th grade during the compulsory educational period. It is easy to imagine how the art educational curriculum encourages Japanese children to develop their artistic ability.

 I also found that Japanese children seemingly use some unique patterns when they create space, which US children seldom use. Actually, more than 20 % of Japanese childrenís drawings could not be classified into Eisnerís categories, although less than 5% of US childrenís drawings could not be classified into the categories. Then what kinds of techniques do Japanese children use? I found at least 3 patterns: bird-eyeís views, exaggerated views, and multi-perspective views (Toku, 1995, 1996).

----- Place Figure 1 and 2 about here -----

 However, it was too early to conclude that these were exactly Japanese childrenís characteristics since the drawings examined were collected from Japanese children who lived in Chicago, not in Japan, due to their parentsí employment. To determine whether the patterns are really unique to Japanese children in elementary schools, I decided to develop this study to identify the socio-cultural influences that are responsible for the early emergence of these characteristics.

3. Why do Japanese children draw in their own ways? (1996 - 1997)

 To find what kinds of socio-cultural factors actually influence the characteristics which appear in Japanese childrenís  spatial treatment in drawings, in this study two tasks were given (drawing and judgment tasks) with the following hypothesis:


 1. There is a direction of development in spatial treatment in Japanese childrenís
                drawings regardless of areas in Japan.
 2. There is a valid artistic developmental stage theory which can describe a
                qualitatively equal shift from one category to another in spatial treatment.
 3. There are no unique patterns of creating space in Japanese childrenís drawings --
                Birdís-eye view, Exaggerated view, Multi-perspective view, etc.

Drawing task

 About 2,500 drawings of 1st through 6th grade Japanese students who studied under the Japanese national curriculum were randomly selected from three areas (northern, central, and southern parts of Japan) to confirm whether characteristics which appeared in drawings are really particular to Japanese children. Japanese children drew the same subject as in the pilot study, "My friend & me playing in the school yard," a theme investigated in an earlier study by Elliot Eisner (1967). First, Eisnerís 14 spatial categories were used to classify the spatial similarities and differences of Japanese childrenís drawings with the statistical method, Chi-square. The result was that all three hypotheses were rejected. This means that Japanese children do not develop from one category to another based on Eisnerís spatial categories and there is not a concrete direction of the development of spatial treatment in childrenís drawings. However, at the same time, we can see the same tendency found in the pilot study appear in three areas of Japan, as more than 30% of Japanese children drawings could not be classified in Eisnerís categories. This indicates that Japanese children clearly have some unique patterns when they create space on 2-D surfaces.

----- Place Figure 3 about here -----

 The drawings were then reclassified according to Tokuís 20 categories (1997) (which were constructed based on Eisnerís 14 categories) to classify spatial presentation in Japanese childrenís drawings. These new categories were developed to categorize Japanese childrenís unique patterns of spatial treatment that could not be classified by Eisnerís 14 categories. However, these do not a form spatial scale to show a developmental direction since children do not always shift from one to another category with their age. These categories are mainly composed of 8 concepts: 1. Mapping (category 1), 2. Alignments without a ground line (categories 2 through 4), 3. Alignments with a ground line (categories 3 through 10), 4. More than two ground lines (categories 11 and 12), 5. Open space (categories 13 and 14), 6. Photographic & exaggerated views (categories 15 and 16), 7. Birdís-eye views (categories 17 through 19), and 8. Multi-perspective views (category 20). Regardless of which of the three areas in Japan, children showed a tendency to often use complicated techniques of creating space considering their ages, such as photographic and exaggerated views in spite of the fact that younger students (1st and 2nd grade) chose alignment techniques when they created space due to their lack of skills rather than their lack of knowledge of the concept of space.

----- Place Figure 4 & 5 about here -----

Judgment task and observation

 The judgment task was implemented by asking six questions based on seven different types of spatial drawings to confirm the relationship between childrenís knowledge of depth and their actual drawings. About 1,000 pieces of data were randomly collected from the same three areas in Japan and analyzed to determine the correlation between childrenís cognitive development and their preference for drawings.

     ----- Place Figure 6 about here -----

 The following six questions were asked: 1. Which picture is the best in showing spatial depth? (Which picture is the best in showing the relationship of far and close?); 2. Which picture is the worst in showing spatial depth?; 3. If you were to draw a forest scene, which picture is the closest to the one that you would draw?; 4. If you were to draw a forest scene, which would you never draw?; 5. which is your favorite picture?; 6. Which is your least favorite picture? The first two questions were to determine studentsí knowledge of space. The third and fourth questions were to find their actual drawings when they drew spatial scenes regardless of their knowledge of space. The fifth and sixth questions were related to aesthetics rather than drawing preference. These questions were given in different ways depending on their ages to make sure of their understanding of these questionsí meanings. For each question, students were allowed to select one number and wrote which they chose among seven drawings (if students did not understand the meaning of the question, they were allowed to select the 8th number) without discussing it with anyone. At the same time, studentsí reactions to these questions were observed.

 In response the first and second questions, there was a big difference between 1st graders and the rest of the grades. According to the data, 1st grade studentsí responses were spread over six pictures, which suggests that they did not have the concept of space. In addition, 10 to 15 % of 1st grade students responded that they did not understand the meaning of the first and second questions. However, most students already tend to have the concept of space before reaching 2nd grade. In the 3rd and 4th questions, studentsí actual drawings shifted from the alignment type of drawings to more complicated spatial drawings, such as picture six (photographic picture) and seven (exaggerated view) with their ages. In spite of the fact that most students, regardless of their age, show their preference for the number five (relative-size picture) or six pictures, younger students tend to choose the technique of number one and two (alignment pictures without and with a horizon line) when they draw. This indicates that students have a tendency to draw at that their own skill level rather than their preference. In the final 5th and 6th questions asking their aesthetic preference, more than twenty percent of all students selected the exaggerated view (picture six) as their favorite picture, and they selected the open-box viewís picture (picture three) as their least favorite picture. Despite studentsí aesthetic preferences, their actual drawings show their ability and limitation of motor skills.

----- Place Figure 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 about here -----


 According to the results of the observation, the assumption that Japanese childrenís creation of space in their drawings was due to the national curriculum was rejected. In the elementary school in Japan, teaching the concept of space and the techniques of creating space in drawings was not required in the national curriculum. This means that most children never learn the techniques of creating space through art education of the national curriculum in Japan. Then how do Japanese children learn unique patterns of creating space in drawings and why do they draw in particular ways?

 There are some possible reasons beyond the national curriculum. One possibility is the classroom orientation. Unlike the US, where children are encouraged to solve problems individually, Japanese children are encouraged to think about problems in a group. Through conversation with peers, children tend to solve  problems relatively easily and quickly (e.g. how to create space in 2-D surfaces). Another possibility is the Japanese aesthetic. Golomb (1992) says that each culture has a different type of aesthetic when they create spatial presentation. Finally, the third possibility is the big influence from Japanese cartoons, called "Manga" in Japanese. Many researchers mention that the influence of Manga appears in Japanese childrenís pictorial worlds, especially on figures in their drawings. However, the influence of Manga was not only on figures, but also on the creation of space, since one of Japanese Mangaís characteristics is the complexity of background depicted in the drawings. Manga is not just in comic books in Japan. Manga is already a part of Japanese culture. Through the pictorial creations of Manga, children learn how to draw and how to create space on 2-D surfaces, but not from teachers, and not from the art curriculum itself.

 As another possibility, some researches tend to easily conclude that characteristics which appear in Japanese childrenís drawings are due to the influence of Japanese traditional art such as the birdís eye views of screen painting and the exaggerated views of Ukiyo-e painting. Those Japanese traditional arts might influence the spatial treatment in Japanese childrenís drawings; however, these influences cannot be main factors. If Japanese childrenís characteristics are a result of Japanese traditional arts, the same kinds of characteristics should have emerged for a long time in Japanese childrenís drawings. I could not often find such tendencies in Japanese childrenís drawings as early as 30 years ago. Assuming some strong socio-cultural influences have caused the appearance of these Japanese childrenís drawing characteristics since that time is more likely than ascribing these characteristics to the influences of Japanese traditional arts.


 Bruner (1996) says that all development is undoubtedly not free from culture. Nevertheless, Cole (1996) argues that there is no theory which explains how a particular culture affects cognitive development in a particular direction. It might be true since it is very difficult to define what is the particular socio-cultural factor which causes a particular direction of childrenís cognitive development. The process of cultural development is not so simple that a conclusion cannot easily be reached. However, it is also true that it is relatively easy to find some socio-cultural characteristics which appear in childrenís artistic development in a particular culture. The problem is that we cannot determine what the main socio-cultural influences that cause such characteristics are.
 The purpose of my research is to challenge Coleís argument. One of my research goals is to find what particular cultural factors cause such characteristics as appear in Japanese childrenís techniques in spatial treatment in their drawings that the US children seldom use. In addition, how the particular cultural influence, which mainly appears only in Japanese childrenís drawings, may possibly  expand to other children who belong to different cultures in other Asian countries. I am eager to try to construct a "map" of cultural expansion. If I can find a clue of the map of cultural expansion based on my research, which is "spatial treatment in children drawings," it may be possible to predict how a particular cultural factor tends to spread to other cultures. Also, this might lead to the creation of proper art educational curricula to support and encourage childrenís cognitive and artistic development as well as their interests and preferences.


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