A toilet bowl, a character in a coloring book, a stuffed bunny in a stroller. These images taken by children under five may seem simple, but researcher Tran Nguyen Templeton believes they hold deeper meaning for the kids.
“It’s easy for us as adults to assume what a picture means,” Templeton tells Parentology. As an assistant professor of education at University of North Texas (UNT), as well as a former teacher of young children in the Houston area, Templeton studies kids’ capacity to tell stories through images. Her research gathers photographs from children under age five. The children are encouraged to take up to 75 pictures, choose the 5 with the most meaning, then share that meaning with classmates.
Raising Children’s Voices
Templeton points to a picture a young student took of a toilet bowl as an example. “The photo of the toilet is interesting, because we think, ‘Kids and potty talk, it’s funny, they do it to get attention,’” says Templeton. In reality, the photograph’s meaning went well beyond simple toilet humor. “The photo was a part of this child’s potty-training process,” Templeton revealed. “It was such an intense process for him, and I think that the photo was emblematic of being able to use the potty by himself – so kind of a symbol of independence, versus what we might assume he thinks is funny and meaningless.”
The same goes for pictures of children’s toys. “If you see a picture of a child’s toy, then you think, ‘Oh, they must really love commercial objects and toys,’” Templeton says, “when it could really be about, ‘This is something my mom gave me when I was feeling sad.’ So it’s more than just a toy, it’s a toy with a very important relationship attached to it.”
Templeton believes that kids are more perceptive than we think, and photography gives them a way to show it. “If you think about literacy being writing and reading, we often don’t think of very young children as being literate,” Templeton told UNT News. “Literacy takes many forms. Photography is one way of being literate. Kids come into the world, they see images and make sense of those images.”
Celebrating Cultural Identity
A major takeaway of the project has been how children perceive their own cultural identities. Templeton recalls one child who participated in the project, a 4-year-old daughter of South Asian immigrants.
“She chose photos to share with her friends that were very reminiscent of her religious and ethnic identity,” says Templeton. “That part of herself, being a South Asian child of immigrants, was not something she talked about on a regular basis, but it was something that showed up in these images that she really wanted to show her friends.”
Templeton says scenarios like this demonstrate that children possess a greater sense of cultural identity than we realize. “There’s this idea that young kids don’t see or know their own race or gender identities,” she says, “but one of the findings is that they are aware of those things. They may not articulate it in the way that we do, it shows up in the ways that they want to present their photographs.”
By introducing young children to photography, Templeton hopes to give them a louder voice to tell their stories. “I think one of the bigger ideas that came out of this is giving children a chance to be able to show us that they understand much bigger things that we ever give them credit for,” she says, “not only for the ability to use a camera, but the ability to talk about their pictures, ask questions to each other about them, and to make sense of their lives together.”
Tran Nguyen Templeton — Sources:
- Tran Nguyen Templeton, Ed.D
- UNT News – “Professor works to lift voices of young children through photography”