Rooms without walls: Young children draw objects but not layouts

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Description: Drawing is an epitome of uniquely human expression, with few limits beyond those of our perceptual and motor systems and the cultures in and for which we draw. The present study suggests a previously unrecognized yet universal cognitive constraint on human drawing rooted in the basic processes of navigation that humans share with other animals and evidenced in the untutored drawings of young children. Following a preregistered design and analysis, 64 4-year-old children either sat in a colorful “fort” or looked at a small “toy” version of the fort and were asked to draw exactly what they saw. Children’s drawings often omitted the walls composing the fort’s layout but included the corresponding object-part information for the toy. Symbolic representations of space in children’s untutored drawings may thus privilege small-scale objects, which elicit explicit attention, over large and fixed layout geometry, which is used automatically for navigation.

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Different groups of children were asked to draw exactly what they saw in four configurations of a fort (top) or toy (bottom). Examples of children's drawings illustrate how children in the fort tended to leave out the walls.

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