The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

How Toddlers Learn the Secret Language of Movies

CMF Supporter Cary Bazalgette’s new book, How Toddlers Learn the Secret Language of Movies (Palgrave Macmillan) takes a radically new approach to the well-worn topic of children’s relationship with the media. It refocuses on the learning processes that children go through in order to understand what they are watching on televisions, phones, or iPads. The book offers unique insights from research with her twin grandchildren, starting from just before they were two years old, with analysis of minute behaviours and expressions as signals of emotions and thought processes.

The book makes the case that all inquiry into early childhood movie-viewing should be based on the premise that learning – usually self-driven – is taking place throughout.

Professor David Buckingham (Loughborough University) gave this assessment:
This is an innovative and important book. Combining meticulous research, fascinating data and the judicious use of theory, Bazalgette brings us much closer to young children’s experiences and perspectives than previous research – and in the process, she refutes many popular myths about their engagements with moving images. Elegantly written, engaging and wise, this book deserves to be widely read, not just by researchers and students, but also by teachers and parents.

A limited number of PDF copies of the full research are available for those interested in the conclusions.


Cary explains her methods and some of her conclusions in this brief outline:

Dealing with Distress

Figure 1 Connie (aged 2) re-views Peppa Pig "Sports Day" (Season 2 episode 15)

Both of the little girls in these pictures are engaged in re-viewing material that had upset them. Both had done this several times before, but still became distressed by particular scenes. In Figure 1, Connie has yet to get to the moment when the tug-of-war rope breaks and both teams (boys and girls) fall on the ground laughing – the standard Peppa Pig ending. She is watching intently and chewing her cheek in anxious preparation for the moment when the rope will break and she will start screaming. The highlight in the image indicates the shadow on her face that her mother instantly recognised when she watched the video from which this screen grab is taken; I hadn’t noticed it.

Figure 2 Kazi (aged 2.5) re-views “The Mole and the Flood” (Zdeněk Miler 1997)

In Figure 2, Kazi had asked yet again to re-view this episode from Miler’s series of short films, in which a mouse’s home is flooded by a rainstorm.  Her parents believed that she kept on watching it “because she likes to cry”. I witnessed this some years ago, during a brief family visit, and it was part of what inspired my doctoral research (now published as How Toddlers Learn the Secret Language of Movies, Palgrave 2022).

I studied 22-42-month-olds’ viewing of TV programmes and films by observing and videoing my twin grandchildren. I wanted to find out how toddlers learn to make sense of the codes and conventions of moving image media, but quickly discovered that this is impossible: we can’t know for sure what they do and don’t understand when they are still not very fluent verbally. But we can infer what they are doing as they watch.

However, the phenomenon of repeat-viewing in order to re-experience distress was something I only saw twice, with Connie and with Kazi, and it continues to intrigue me. I haven’t found any discussion of this kind of thing in parents’ social media discussions either. I wonder whether it could relate to Bettelheim’s argument about the importance of the frightening elements of fairy stories in his book The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage Books 1976): that they help children to deal with things that frighten them anyway, such as separation from loved ones, disappointment and violence – and this is why they like to hear them re-told many times and to look at them over and over again in picture books.

Despite the challenges of “proving” what is going on in children’s very early viewing behaviour, my research findings do demonstrate that toddlers are engaged in an intense process of learning when they are viewing – not just about the content but also – and primarily – about how moving image media tell stories. This contradicts the common negative comments about children and TV, as in “passive viewing”, “obsessions,” being “mesmerised,” “time-wasting,” etc. Re-viewing – even of material that is upsetting – is driven by a child’s determination to get more out of a narrative, just as we do when we re-read a book or listen again to a piece of music. What clinches my argument (in my opinion anyway!) is that after the child has finished re-viewing a particular TV episode, series or film, they are likely to try and find something to watch that is narratively or stylistically more complex.


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