Király Ildikó and Koós Orsolya -
Authors are affiliated to the Research
Group of Human Developement in the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


This essay introduces infants and toddlers as audience of theatre. The first question that arises is whether it’s reasonable to speak about theatrical experience at this age? Instead of simply saying yes we would like to depict infants as their developing mental abilities make them sensitive/docile for the perception of a dramatic experience. 


Theatre and schemes

Although theatre is usually connected to the non-obvious, to the extraordinary in one’s life, the process of reception is obviously grounded in the schemes of everyday experience. Coloring everyday schemes, bringing something new and unexpected while using them, theatre becomes a place of celebration, a home for rites. A theatre for kids has to be based on similar grounds. It has to be in part similar to and in part different from traditional adult or children’s theatre. It is similar, that as adults, based upon our experiences we have our mental structures (so called mental schemes or scripts) accessible while encountering new situations. A play could be obvious and at the same time unfamiliar – therefore interesting – as a result of the matching of the new event to the already stored ones. The same is true in case of infants; they need an old experience to be stored in their memory to which they connect the new event based on some commonality between the two. They esteem the unfamiliarity of a performance if only it is new or unfamiliar in comparison with an old and in that already obvious experience.

Nevertheless, there are differences between the memory structures of infants and adults. The old viewpoint which saw children as young adults is totally false. One of the main admittances of developmental science is the existent human-concept according to which we don’t see infants as small adults any more and we see infancy as qualitatively different with its own knowledge about the outside world. We have to acknowledge the qualitative differences in their way of cognition. The question thus is how those dissimilarities can be captured and what is the true nature of this qualitative difference in mental structures between infants and adults.

Because of the shorter lifetime infants have gathered much less experience and therefore they have less mental schemas to store them in. We know that fundamental developmental shifts take place at the age of 1-3 in cognitive, emotional, and motor abilities. This is the reason why we can’t regard those infants as a homogenous developmental group. Their heterogeneity is greater than those of older children who usually can be seen as the audience of a theatre for kids.

The changes that take place during the first few years, despite the shortness of this period, are unequivocally important and radical. To her first birthday an initially totally helpless infant learns how to initiate a movement, which later eventuates in walking on her own; during their second year of life babies learn more and more words and up to their second birthday this quickly developing language will be the primary tool for them in the communication with others. They are not myopic anymore so they can accurately perceive and explore the objects in their environment and they become more and more receptive to the stimuli coming from both the animate and inanimate aspects of the outside world.  

Instead of asserting – or in contrast diminishing – the importance of these early developmental changes it seems more fruitful to look at this early period as a part of somebody’s life when the changes take place without her deliberate contribution or awareness; we have no autobiographic memory traces from that period during which we acquire all our skills and knowledge effortless, playful, and motivated by intrinsic forces. The phases and the rhythm of development are highly idiosyncratic but the milestones are the same for everyone. This all becomes clear when we try to compare the memory capacities of infants and adults. Why is it a fact that adults do not remember the first few years of their life and why is infants’ memory capacity “inaccurate”? Our lack of early memories is not caused by capacity problems but the difference between what we considered to be important – and worth to be stored – then and now. Considering the momentous events during their life, adults anchor their experience to well established time periods and milestones; they can clearly see the continuity of a timeline from past to present and further to future, which can be seen as a constructive strategy for recalling memories. Infants don’t have these kinds of supporting mental schemes and therefore don’t have recallable stories from their lifetime, they don’t have a structuring narrative that helps them to remember. That is, the mental schemes are different between these life periods, and this lack of match is the main cause of the so called childhood amnesia. Similarly, the joy of exploration can be traced back to this difference. After all, everything is new and interesting for children as there are no past experiences available in their memory.

That’s why we have to be careful while designing a performance for infants, because we have to avoid using our adult like schemes; instead we have to try to think about those effects that are interesting enough to capture infants’ attention but at the same time simple enough not to tire them out.


Cultural context of development

When considering making theatre for kids we have to remember one indispensable aspect of reception: that babies are born into a social environment. This is the natural background and promoter of development. We have to consider that there is no mind without culture, and vice versa (see Bruner, 1996; Nelson, 1996). When we think of culture as a web of meanings we mustn’t forget about the individual who is the constructor and the interpreter of those meanings and about the nature of that process thanks to which the individual will become the owner of the shared cultural knowledge and therefore an active agent who can create and interpret the shared meanings. This phenomenon is twofold by nature. Culture (that is adults who are the parts of the culture) is around the babies from the beginning of their life, nevertheless, socialization is a long process only at the end of which will children be fully qualified members of their culture. The theatre especially made for infants and toddlers is a beautiful example for this.

It might not be obvious that an infant’s nervous system does not radically differ from that of primates. The hallmarks of adult performance – that goes back to the size and complexity of adult brain – are the result of a long learning and developing procedure; innateness gives only a possibility to react differentially to events of the outside world. Infancy is a kind of “tuning period” for the perceptual and conceptual systems which makes it possible for babies to react differently to special characteristics of social and physical environment. From 9 months of age we can observe special “human” behavioral forms at babies; from this age they are able to focus on what their mothers pay attention to and this is the period of the beginning of imitation. Imitation and shared attention (with their mother) increase infants’ performance in learning; from this point they get knowledge both from their own past experiences and, by identifying themselves with others (‘she is just like me’) they learn from others’ activities too (Tomasello, 1999). Even preverbal infants can learn from the external events by accurately copying others’ behavior. Later imitation enables them to acquire language, this new and effective learning tool.

As a part of a theatre-audience infants can be seen as members of their culture with an incomplete knowledge about it. In the course of ontogenesis (and also through evolution) language, through its use for communication develops into a representational system (Nelson, 1996). We can regard ontogeny and phylogeny as parallels as the representational forms change during development. According to this assumption there are three developmental stages during evolution. These stages represent three subsequent representational systems where the impetus of transition is the evolution of language (Donald, 1991). Theory suggests that apes used to have episodic memories but they could not self-trigger those memories and showed very little independent thought which was not directly related to specific episodes. This is called the episodic phase. The next step possibly came when few episodes had become symbolic and their representations could be shared between the members of the social group. An event might be represented by an elaborated conventional series of movements or by a specific gesture with or without specific vocalizations. This is mimetic culture. By discovering the possibility of exchanging symbols, our ancestors (and our kids) establish the emergence of language. (During ontogeny the ability of imitation brings us to this developmental stage.) The next stage, which is called ‘narrative culture’, occurred with the emergence and usage of language; language allows creating and communicating narratives about our experiences. In narrative culture individuals exchange meanings by telling stories. For children the stories create continuity in time; Bruner (1996) suggests that the narrative connects the individual with its social environment. Storytelling is not a mere communicational act but a function of a specifically human ability, namely autobiographical memory. With our own memories about our lives we can extend ourselves in time as well as give continuity to our acts.

The evolution of language makes it possible to create an autonomous representation of the external world. Mental representations of objects exist even if the objects themselves are not actually present in real world. Language makes it possible to think of and use abstract notions. This stage is called theoretic culture by Donald. This gives us an adequate perspective for speaking about culture as web of meanings.

In this developmental process small children are in the mimetic phase: actions, movements, and gestures are crucial for them. In the case of a child-audience, movements and actions should play the main roles in performances because this form of expression is the best media of meaning in this period. In the following section we try to briefly present the developmental changes which could be relevant during theatrical reception. Emotional and cognitive domains will be concerned.


Fundamentals of reception in emotional development

Emotional expressions are primeval forms of communication. Even few seconds after birth newborns are able to communicate with the help of crying. During the first months however, emotional expressions of discomfort are not differentiated enough. Inner feelings and the expressed facial emotions are not perfectly matched yet. In the course of development infants gradually learn to differentiate their feelings and each inner emotional state is associated with a special and discriminative form of facial expression.

The social environment – especially the mother – plays an essential role in this process. A mother, being sensitive to her baby’s inner states visualizes, or “mirrors” the emotions of the infant in her own facial expressions (Gergely and Watson, 1999). The contingency between the existent but not perfectly identified inner feelings and the observed facial expression of the mother promotes emotional development.

During development however, not only ability of expression but the emotionally challenging situations also change. Researchers investigated what kinds of situations could trigger fear-reactions between 2 months and 2 years of age. Fear from strangers, depth, loud noises, automotive toys, and masks were tested. Before seven months of age few children showed a reaction of fear for any of these events. Fear-guided avoiding reactions for deepness, strangers, and masks increased with age. After seven months of age we can observe the emergence of fear of loud and/or unexpected noises, unknown toys. This process culminates at the end of the first year, then later fades away. Fear of being alone begins at the second part of the first year, and culminates at 15-18 months of age, then decreases.

During this development infants’ perception and reaction to the emotional expressions of adults also change. Seven-month-olds, based on special characteristics (e.g. visual contrasts) are already able to recognize faces but it does not automatically entail the discrimination of emotional expressions. Initially the discrimination is based on sounds and voices rather than visual cues. Sounds play major role in emotional communication from the start. Adults do not talk to their babies in the same way they talk to other adults. Rather, they use the so called ‘motherese’ (or care-taker speech). These simplified utterances usually have high rising intonation which attracts infants’ attention and goes with positive emotions. Emotional tones make meaning of these utterances (disallowance, encouragement) more transparent. When an adult tries to comfort an infant or reads a tale for her, the speech is often accompanied by special prosody and mimics. These slightly exaggerated gestures both help infants to understand the adults’ intentions and are also markers. When a mother tries to comfort her crying baby then she is not actually crying, just pretends to do so, to communicate her empathy with the baby. At the age of 2 infants begin to play pretend-games and they use the same ‘motherese’ while talking to their teddy-bear, symbolizing that reality was suspended for a while. When actors use these kinds of exaggerated gestures during the performance they can create a familiar and comfortable, yet emotionally saturated situation where infants can feel the contact with other members of the audience and they can easily recognize that this is just a play and not reality. To put it short, with the use of familiar mimics and prosody puppeteers would help the kids a lot to understand what’s happening on the stage.

In their first year of life infants not only learn more about expressing emotions but they also acquire new abilities with which they can easily operate even in unfamiliar circumstances. While approaching an unfamiliar, but attractive and at the same time fearful object they use the face of their mother’s (or other adults in the surroundings) as reference. This phenomenon is called social referencing. Comparing with 6-9 month-olds, 10 month-olds check the face of their mother more often, respect the emotion it expresses, and modify their behavior according to it (Walden and Ogan, 1988). The emotional reactions and decisions of parents have an impact on both the behavior of their children and on their perception of the outside world.

The major experience of the first year is when infants begin to separate themselves from the others around them (Stern, 1985). We can observe the emotions – e.g. empathy – which presuppose an already existing separation of the self and others during the second year. Even newborns react to the cry of other babies with crying. Some say that this is the first sign of empathy but others think of these reactions as simple reflexes. Initially it might occur that babies mistake their own crying for that of others’. The motivation for helping emerges in a later phase of development. Data show that even 6-month-olds are interested in the emotions of others (Eisenberg, 1992); they get closer and touch their peer who shows signs of discomfort. In the same situation 12- and 24-months-olds find other ways, either request the help of adults or offer their toys as a solace (Zahn-Waxler, 1992). These reactions can be regarded as deliberate acts but they stem from the infant’s own needs. Taking the other’s perspective doesn’t appear before 3 years of age; by this time children have already understood that the emotions of others could be different from those of their own. The highest level of empathy is when somebody understands that different people might show totally different reactions in a situation. In this respect, a theatrical experience would give more to the 1.5-3 age group, because their knowledge of the other’s perspective and different emotional states enables them to understand the meaning of gestures and intentions that appear on stage more perfectly.

Many theorists contemplate the development of feeling, being aware of and communicating one’s emotional states. Infants do not speak about their emotions before 18 months of age (Bretherton et al., 1986) but once they do it becomes a frequent topic of discourse. It has an impact on cooperation with others. Conversations about emotions usually appear in the form of a commentary (Dunn, 1987). 28 months olds already know how the others react to the manifestation of feelings. Emotional conversations aren’t for informing theothers any more, but play important role in sharing experiences with others instead. For infants emotions initially simply mean facial expressions or special reactions but later turn to be inner states (Harris and Saarni, 1989).

After 3 years of age at least half of the conversations on emotion deal with the causes of emotions which at this age are just external events. Not before 3 years of age can infants consider mental states, desires, and beliefs as possible reasons of emotions. This kind of discourse represents a much more sophisticated intellectual level than earlier stages when only facial expression and intonation could inform the infants about emotions. Talking about emotions renews the quality of personal relationships. This is a mutual process through which both parents and children can perceive the other’s perspective generating shared experiences and – more importantly – remembering and processing experiences.


Cognitive aspects of theatrical reception

The most prominent developmental result at the end of the first year of life is that infants are now able to explore their environment through watching, moving and manipulating. The reason for perception is to get more information for their actions and the reason for action is to get more information about the external world (Gibson, 1988). The development of reaching and grasping means more than the ability of receiving an object; together with perceiving and acting in the outside world these skills are the dominant forms of understanding our environment. That’s why it is so important for the theatre to offer a global experience where infants can receive both sensory and motor information, where they can manipulate and act themselves, can touch the objects or try to imitate the movements of the players. It is advisable to put objects of different colors and forms in reach of the kids so they can observe them during the performance.

As regards cognitive development we mustn’t forget about symbolic pretend-games which appear at 18-24 months of age. Symbolic games have an important role because they demand differentiating between reality and its representation. This knowledge allows infants to substitute an object with another, for example to pretend that the banana is actually a telephone (Piaget, 1962).

Children’s ability of making displacements with the help of their own fantasy during playing does not necessarily mean that manipulation is easy for them in all kinds of “pre-fabricated” symbolic forms, even if those connections would seem to be trivial for adults. At the beginning the thought of infants is egocentric and they only understand their own symbolic creations. But faces, however schematic, contribute to the understanding of symbols a great deal

Data show that infants can be aware of the connection between their own actions and external events (e.g. if their leg movements make a mobile toy move they consider themselves effective agents as a result). This contingency detection goes with the feeling of control over events, which triggers positive emotions (Watson, 1985). During the first three months infants prefer perfect stimulus-response contingencies, when their own movements directly cause changes in the environment (Watson, 1994). Moving a mobile, doing self-stimulation or watching their own movements in the mirror, are all good examples for this. These months are of crucial importance in sensing the limits of the self, and in dissociating the self from the other. After three months babies begin to be also interested in imperfect contingencies. This seems to be a turning point in development, where their attention turns from their bodies to the social world. Perfect contingencies are already boring but they still need predictability because it represents safety. A mother who perfectly resonates to her baby’s needs never shows a perfect mirror-like reflection but she is always there when she is needed. It could also be a source of joy if there is a game (e.g. peek-a-boo or a nursery rhyme) where all the adults react in the same predictable way. Rhymes, dialogues, repetitions in a theatrical performance could improve these abilities and elicit admiration because these forms embody predictability and at the same time small changes in realization of performance could ensure constant attention.

Imitation, as we mentioned above, is a mode of communication in this period. We have to know that even newborns are able to imitate in a primitive way: they copy the lip-movement and tongue protrusion of others (Meltzoff and Moore, 1999). This ability develops fast. 9 months olds, for example, are able to imitate a movement from memory with a week long delay, which is called deferred imitation (Meltzoff, 1988). According to Piaget deferred imitation is a turning point in development because it shows the existence of an internal mental model which is present in the absence of external stimuli (Piaget, 1962).

The presence of imitation indicates that infants have mental representations, which are called internal percepts by Piaget and which are not separable from motor experience. Besides learning tool use, imitation is also good for mediating behavioral routines or initially unknown signs. That’s the reason why imitation is considered the most important means of cultural transmission. If toddlers can get in contact with actors (either during the performance of afterwards) or with the objects used on the stage they can learn by imitation, since by copying somebody’s behavior they can relive their own experiences. Tools used while implementing behavior are not just simple pivots of imitating the sequences of movements but also help deepening the experienced events – if children have the possibility to touch them – because besides perception, action and manipulation are also essential sources of cognition at this age.

Imitation also has cognitive prerequisites which become important when we have a collective experience. These are the earliest forms of communication that were mentioned while talking about emotional development. These are the beautiful and intimate moments of the unfolding attachment between mother and child, when their gazes join each other in the first months of the baby’s life. A bit later baby’s babbling accompanies this form of communication, which mothers usually consider as the initiation of conversation on the child’s part. Infants gradually learn to alternate between the different roles of communication thereby broadening this early dyadic relationship. During this kind of communication mothers often echo the babbling of their child reflecting its emotional and intensity aspects (Trevarthen, 1980). This tuning behavior on the mother’s part helps children to regulate their actual emotional states. It seems to be an important sign of development when infants are able to focus not only on their mother but while focusing on a desirable object they can get her attention to this object, in other words, maintaining the conversation with the mother. In this case the discourse is expanding to a third party, and the object appears within the focus of attention. Infants are able to monitor their mother’s attention and at the same time focus on the object. This shared attention situation has a crucial role in socialization as this is the first sign of interest in the mental state behind somebody’s behavior. A good example for this is social referencing. At 10 months of age infants are leaning based (mostly) on their mother’s attitude when evaluating a new object or a new situation. It is well known that after falling down children check their mother’s face and if they detect a sign of fear they start crying. The same thing happens with unfamiliar objects and situations as toddlers approach them when their mother’s face shows positive or neutral emotions but avoid them when they read facial signs that show negative attitudes. Since they don’t have their own experiences with those things they rely on their mother’s expert reaction.

These cognitive abilities underlie theatrical reception as toddlers do not only focus on the performance but also on the reaction of the adults in the audience and when these two sources of information can strengthen each other (given that the adults also enjoy the performance, thus encouraging the reception process in the child).

Until now we have only focused on the abilities of preverbal infants and have only suggested that all of these are prerequisites of language acquisition and verbal communication. At the age of two however, toddlers take an active share in conversations. And although a theatrical performance that was especially made for this age-group shouldn’t be built upon linguistic elements only, the use of verbal communicational forms can enrich the linguistic experiences of the little ones. The commentaries of parents during the performance can help this process very much. Moreover, a follow-up discourse could assist the development of remembering. When a child starts speaking, the parents initiate conversations about the past. As Miller’s data show (1994) participants start reminiscing 5-7 times while sitting at the dinner-table. At the beginning (usually at the age of two) toddlers don’t add anything to these conversations that are mostly directed by parents. The topic of the discourses is most frequently a shared and relived experience, and parents don’t rely on the participation of the children. By the age of 3-4, mainly by the development of constructing narratives, children will be able to take a part in remembering. We can see the parent-child relation as a mutually accommodating system (Fivush, Haden, and Reese, 1996). During reminiscing, when all participants have an active share, the reconstruction of a past shared experience takes place. At the beginning these interactions are mostly parent-scaffolded where children have smaller roles. But as children become more involved in the social world the revived memories become more complex and by and by parents can extend those narratives even more. This process serves two purposes; on the one hand it is a good tool for teaching creating autobiographical narratives, on the other, the participants of reminiscing talks can form detailed and complex memories of shared experiences. A theatrical experience is a exceptional opportunity for reminiscing in that its peculiarity ensures the uniqueness of this event which won’t merge into everyday experiences. The memories of toddlers are known to be stored in general, script like forms because most of the events they encounter seem unknown to them (as we mentioned before, as adults we don’t have memories from those years). They don’t remember the special aspects of events exactly but they easily recognize which category the new event belongs to and how they have to behave in this new situation. The advantage of this kind of remembering is getting a summarized form of event types. Later, with help of language, the decomposition of a whole event will be possible. Nevertheless, when an event is so unique for a child that it exceeds the existing categories, and at the same time it is such a rare and well distinguished occasion as we think a performance is, it will be recallable with all of its elements in the long run.


Together in the theatre

Following the separate tracks of emotional and cognitive development we have arrived to the same point of view, according to which the conversations on shared experiences help not only the joint recollection of events but – by reliving the emotions connected them together – help remembering, and the further processing of those events. These abilities are useful in everyday social operations because they supply us with the ability of interpreting others’ reactions, for imaging and understanding others’ emotions, beliefs and desires. Early relationships, primarily the attachment to the mother but also to others play an important role. All shared experiences

·      informing us of others’ unfamiliar reactions and behaviors thus improving the storehouse of our memories

·      that provide information about the mother’s reactions help to classify new information

·      provide new faces and reactions of the well known mother who represents security for the child, thus deepening the bond between them

·      can inspire or surprise the mother watching her child’s reactions.


Theatre is a place where we can find an altered reality, where we can see the world differently, with its rhythms, colors, and lights. All this can be experienced together with the mother or parents which makes it a joyful experience for the children. The prime quality of this experience originates from the shared aesthetic experience that theatre gives. This shared experience strengthens their relationship and gives new information about one another while providing the children with new information about the world. Furthermore, luckily, the unique elements of performances foster development. To list a few of these elements, as these are only some taken out fragments, the peek-a-boo or the rhymes exemplify role-changing in communication; contingent events evolve the ability of prediction of the outcome of events; the rhythmic elements, the coordinated singing and dancing does not only affect the taste of kids but communicate simple meaning to them translated into the language of gestures.



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