Open Eye: TV preview: Miniature Adults Or Unique Individuals

Simon Newton previews a series which looks inside the minds of infants and explores the ways in which they relate to the world around them
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The Independent Online
Do infants view the world as miniature adults or do they have a unique way of seeing that we can never fully understand? Some key stages of child development are explored in a special week of OU programmes beginning on Monday 16 November.

As adults, we can no longer inhabit the world of a child but we can try to understand and describe an infant's feelings. In Babies' Minds, we see how the insights of the psychologists Piaget and Melanie Klein offer two distinct routes of child development.

For Piaget, the infant's world is radically different from that of an adult. The infant sees the world as a succession of `shifting insubstantial tableaux that appear and disappear' with inanimate objects having no sense of space, depth or even continuing existence. The toy soldier is placed under a cloth and the infant believes it can never be retrieved. She is delighted to see it miraculously reappear.

For Klein, the infants are programmed from birth to create human relationships. The mother is both a source of love and tenderness but also frustration and hunger. Through these good and bad experiences and through play, infants resolve emotional conflicts and begin to have a clear image of their world.

Conventional education depends on developing the five senses but what if a child has only touch, feel and smell? Can they genuinely communicate and eventually achieve full independence? The programme Deaf-Blind Education in Russia is a moving and luminous account of educational optimism.

Pioneering Soviet psychologists claimed in post-revolutionary Russia that normal development for deaf-blind children was possible if social conditions were right. This programme centres on a special school in Zagorsk where deaf-blind children are encouraged into social situations where they need language to communicate. In a highly developed tactile finger language, twin sisters follow a lesson in classifying domestic animals.

In a compelling sequence, the girls' fast finger movements entwine with those of their teacher representing words, movements and actions. They run their fingers over a plastic model of a pig. They then visit a farm and feel (and smell) a real pig. Back in the classroom, they model a pig from plasticine so the teacher can now see the mental image they have formed.

These children clearly possess the same relentless curiosity as any other child. The special teachers devise individual strategies for each child with unique instructions and methods of assessment.

Bright objects such as torches are used to stimulate and communicate to a child that a task has been completed.

Exercises demanding movement enhance co-ordination. The graceful `candle dance' of the school-girls is greeted with wildly enthusiastic signed applause by the partially sighted children and is clearly a remarkable and emotional achievement.

Under Stalin, deaf-blind children were described as `defectives' but the optimistic belief that these children could benefit fully from a rounded education returned and, in 1977, four pupils from Zagorsk graduated from Moscow University. Deaf-Blind Children in Russia is a celebration of all children's potential for fulfilment.

A child's impulse to draw seems to be universal. As Piaget argued, drawing is one way of observing a child's thoughts. But what role does culture play in child development and what is universal? Windows on the Mind takes on the challenge by comparing the approach of children in Dundee with those in an Aborigine community north of Alice Springs. Both sets of children are asked to draw a human figure and an object partially hidden behind another.

Both groups of children become deeply involved in their drawings. The `tadpole' figure drawing is common to both groups of children. Aborigine children, however, use a rich repertoire of abstract symbols alongside attempts at realistic drawing.

Traditions of story-telling and painting become part of the child's graphic language. A wavy line can mean a river or a snake. Circles can mean camp- sites or fires. The abstract symbol of a semi-circle stands for people. A preoccupation with hands and feet drawn larger than life may stem from the outdoor lifestyle.

Windows on the Mind challenges any notion of universal stages of child development. While Dundee children are shown to hit real problems when they begin to draw the body realistically, Aborigine children seem to bypass this stage by using a rich symbolic style of drawing.

This week of programmes on child development offers a grown-up route into a child's world. (All programmes on BBC2.)

Tuesday 17 November: Babies' Minds, 00.30

Tuesday 17 November:Deaf-Blind Education in Russia, 01.30

Wednesday 18 November: Windows on the Mind, 01.30.