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Children's Animistic Thinking

Updated on December 21, 2011

Children's thought patterns, belief system and understanding of their world and environment is vastly different from an adult's, and varies greatly depending on factors such as age, gender, culture, personality, and education.

One of the characteristics of Piaget's Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years old), in addition to the use of language and symbols and egocentric thinking, is animistic thinking, where the child attributes living attributes, such as feelings and senses, towards inanimate objects, especially if they move or appear to be conscious or alive.

According to his theory, animistic thinking may persist beyond this stage and into adulthood for some people.

It is interesting to see the responses of different children to the same story, and the varied responses to similar questions.

For the purpose of a Child Development Research Paper and Assignment, I read the story "Owl and the Moon," from Arnold Lobel's (1975) book titled Owl at Home to children of different ages, gender, and personality but from similar backgrounds, education and culture.

I then followed up with questions about the story and their understanding of various aspects of nature, to test their animistic thinking patterns and assess their understanding of the universe.

All the children were from the same culture and similar homes, and they ranged from infancy to the mid-teens. Note that some sentences and language used in this paper may sound simplistic or childish; however, this was done intentionally because it is meant to convey the child's expression as closely as possible. I have tried to keep the script as close as possible to what the child said, while still being understandable.

After I read the story to them, I asked the children various questions regarding their surroundings, and branched off as appropriate to: their responses, their attention span, their age, and their interest in speaking.

I mainly read the story to two families.

One was the Brown family, a family living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, consisting of a baby infant, a two year old boy, an almost four year old girl, Abigail, and a five and a half year old boy, Asher. In the Brown family, the main responses came from Abigail and Asher.

I also read the story separately to each sibling of another family, consisting of a 5 3/4 year old boy, a ten year old boy, an 11 year old girl, a 13 year old boy, and a 15 year old boy.

As I was reading the story to the first family, and reached page 53, "If I am looking at you, moon, then you must be looking back at me…" Abigail and Asher interrupted me to say, "Moons can't look at you!" "It's a make-believe story!" This demonstrated their theory of mind and false belief understanding, as well as a certain understanding past animistic thinking.

The infant baby simply lay on the floor on his back, looking at us, and making faces at us. Although he obviously did not understand what we were saying, he showed recognition of our voices and faces, and an interest and attraction towards our voices and faces.

The two year old boy did not have a long attention span, and had limited comprehension and verbal skills. At times he got fidgety and left the room. During the times that he was there, he sat and looked at the pictures and listened to me reading. He did not say much, other than repeating what others said, such as "I can't see, let me see!" (Which he said immediately after his sister said those same words). When I asked him, "is the moon alive?" he said, "The moon went up to a lion." As I asked him the other questions, he said "yes", "no", and "cause", but I doubt that he really understood or was agreeing to any of the questions. He was simply trying to answer a satisfactory syllable. He is at the age where he can speak, but cannot follow long stories. He is at the very beginning of the pre-operational stage, and does not have enough comprehension and language skills to express animistic thinking yet.

The four year old girl was very sweet, talkative, had a very good comprehension, and had some animistic thinking. She thought that the moon can really see the owl, but cannot hear it. She had a good understanding of cosmology for a child of her age. She contradicted herself with a number of the answers- first she said the moon could see, and then she said he can't see. She demonstrated animistic thinking with a number of her responses. She thought that: "the moon is alive and following the owl, because they're friends, the owl was sleeping, the owl said 'don't follow', but moons don't care, the moon wants to go to his house. The moon doesn't disappear, when you wake up, it's still there; you can't see it during the day. During the day, the moon goes behind the clouds. No, the moon isn't shaped like a banana, yes, it looks like a circle. I don't know why the moon changes shapes. The sun never changes shapes because it's always the same. The moon is friends with the owl, yes, they're friends. Yes, the moon likes the owl. But the moon is running away from the owl. The moon is his friend, but he can't see him. The moon likes the owl."

The five and a half year old boy understood that the moon was not alive and did not have characteristics of living things, yet his responses did show a small amount of animistic thinking, and also some misunderstandings about the moon, for example, he thinks that there are many moons. He said that: "the moon is not alive, but it really is following the owl, because it could move, but it can't hear, and it is trying to follow the owl." When questioned as to why the moon is following the owl, he said "That's how some moons are." When asked "How are the other moons?" he responded, "The other moons are regular. Some moons follow, and some don't." He understood that the moon cannot really see or hear the owl. "The moon- it doesn't disappear, it's somewhere in the sky, it doesn't shine because G-d makes it so it can't shine. It only shines at night." This shows that his understanding is influenced by his religious upbringing. He said that: "the banana (crescent) shape is half a moon and the moon is never like a half circle, but it does sometimes look like a full circle. The reason why the moon changes shapes is because sometimes G-d makes it have a little light or more light, and the whole moon has a ton of light. The sun doesn't change because the sun has a bright thing. Sometimes G-d wants it to have the same shine every day. No one's out at night, they don't need so much shine at night. No, the moon is not a friend of the owl, No, the moon doesn't like the owl."

The five and 3/4 year old boy understood that the moon is not alive and cannot see or hear the owl, and is not a friend of the owl. However, he did think that the moon is really following the owl, he wasn't sure why, but "the clouds are moving and the air is blowing the moon." He said that he doesn't know why the moon disappears during the day, or where it disappears to and how it reappears. He knows that the moon is sometimes very small, because "when there's nothing there, it's the beginning of the month which follows the lunar calendar. "I learnt that. When it's the first of the month, the moon disappears. I know that the moon gets bigger and smaller. The reason why the moon changes shapes is so that then people could know when it's the beginning of the month." He doesn't know why the sun never changes shapes, or why the moon doesn't like the owl. "The moon is a regular moon. It makes light. When Adam and Eve were born, G-d made the world, and it turned into the world. The whole world is like a ball or a circle. The moon is a circle. The moon is ignoring the owl. The owl thinks it's following him. But the moon doesn't have ears, nose, eyes or a mouth. It doesn't talk and it doesn't breathe."

The ten year old boy, Yoel, said "The moon is not alive and it is not following the owl, because it stays in one spot. It can't see or hear the owl. It disappears during the day because it's on the other side of the world, while the sun takes over. During the daytime, he goes somewhere else to make it night. Yes, I noticed the different shapes of the moon. It changes shapes to show what time of the month it is. The sun makes the moon change shapes. The reason why the sun doesn't change shapes, and the moon does, is because the sun was not punished, and the moon was." Here he is referencing a Biblical thought which teaches that the sun and moon were meant to be the same, but the moon complained that two kings cannot rule. He wanted to be bigger. As a result, as punishment for complaining and seeking more, he was made smaller, and the sun stayed the same. "The moon doesn't know about the owl because it doesn't have eyes and ears. The moon is made out of ground and fire and a little gravity and it's always hot. The sun is completely made out of fire. The stars are made up of pieces of the moon. They're there to keep the moon company. The earth is made out of gravity, mud, dirt and lava. Only the world moves, but the moon stays in one spot. When the moon was blocked by the clouds, the moon didn't move, the clouds moved. The clouds are made out of hot water and water that comes out of the ocean. The water goes up, I don't know how, because I never saw water flying up in the air. Maybe when there's a storm and wind and it flies in all directions."

The 11 year old girl: "the moon is not alive and it can't really see or hear the owl, and it isn't following the owl, because it just doesn't follow him. It just stays there. It looks like it's following him, because everything around it is moving, the world is moving. The moon disappears during the day because the sun is there. The moon is still there during the day, but the sun is not shining on the moon. Yes, I know the moon has all those different shapes. It doesn't really change shapes. It just looks like it, because things are covering parts of it, like the clouds. The sun never changes shapes because the sun is always supposed to be there. The moon is with the stars. The sun and the moon are a little similar. They're both round and they shine up the world. But one is less light; one comes at night, one at day. The sun is behind the clouds but still there at night. They are more like stars than planets. Actually, the sun is a star, because it's made out of light. But the moon is a planet, because it has bumps on it, and it's hot. There's only one moon in the whole universe, and there are four or five planets. The other planets don't have suns and moons. They could see our sun and moon. A person can't live on another planet. The clouds were created a long time ago to be the way they are, and they always stay the same, but they move. They're made out of water. The water stays in the clouds and never moves. I don't know why my brother thinks it moves. That's a funny idea that the water came from the earth, how would it get there! That's how rain comes from clouds, but the clouds stay the same, and the water never goes back up. It always just has more water and makes rain and doesn't run out."

The 13 year old boy, Gabriel, gave an intelligent and educated answer: "The moon is not alive, and if he's not alive, then how could he see or hear? The moon doesn't see or hear the owl. It's not following the owl because it's in one place, and it goes around the earth. The moon disappears during the day because the reflection of the sun… I mean, because the sun goes in front., No, I mean, it's not dark, so there's no reflection. It's still there during the day. Yes, I have noticed the different shapes of the moon. It doesn't change shapes. It's because parts of the sun are being blocked by the moon. The sun never changes shapes because it's a planet like earth. Light comes from the sun. It can't be blocked. The moon is made out of rock; it's probably colder than earth. The sun is made out of gas. The stars are made out of rock. The sun is of the solar system. And the moon is of the earth. There are nine planets. They have different moons but the same sun. The earth is a sphere. The earth is made out of earth! The planets are in a set pattern. There are 'regular clouds' and 'rain clouds'. The regular clouds are mist in the air, and the rain clouds are evaporated water in the ocean."

The 15 year old boy, gave a simple and short answer: "the moon is not alive, but in the story it's following the owl because the moon is the owl's very good friend. Maybe it could see the owl, but it can't hear it. The moon disappears during the day because of the clouds. The moon goes into the clouds during the day. I know the moon looks like a banana shape and a full circle, but never like exactly a half circle. The reason why it changes shapes is because sometimes it's totally covered by clouds, and sometimes not."

One can see how children of different ages have very different perceptions of space, the sun, moon, stars, the earth and the clouds, and have very different ways of expressing themselves and understanding the world. They are also at different stages of thought patterns and different transitional animistic thinking. Although this is partially due to their age, some of the other factors involved are their intelligence, education, personality and interests. One's religion and upbringing also greatly affects one's perception and way of thought.

Child Developmental Psychology- Animistic Thinking Demonstration Video

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