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Animated Kids:
An Analysis of Comprehension of Animation Logic in Young Children

by Wendy Jackson Hall
Animation Artist/Educator, Seattle, WA
Presented at the 2002 Society for Animation Studies Conference, Glendale, CA

Note: This paper is intended to be read in conjunction with the viewing of a companion videotape of student work samples. Please contact the author for information about obtaining a copy of the video.

Announcement: Wendy died November 16, 2005. She was only 32 years old. I did not know her. Looks like a big loss of an animation educator who could have continued planting the seed of animation to many more of the young and help keep the art alive. AWN news about Wendy

Children today are immersed in media, and in particular, animation, as it is found on television, in movies and in video and computer games. Yet few children think about how animation is created until they are given an opportunity to do so themselves. New technologies available for home and school use are making animation an accessible form of self-expression for children.

I was first exposed to the art of animation when I was in high school. Shortly after I began making my own frame-by-frame movies with Super-8mm film, I started teaching it, in turn, to children, as an apprentice to my mentor, animation teacher Gail Banker. I worked with her for several years before I began teaching animation classes on my own. Since then, I have had the pleasure of working with more than 1,000 children, teaching animation at summer camps, in after-school programs, in libraries, community centers and elementary schools.

This presentation is based on observations of hundreds of children ranging in age from four to fourteen, made during animation workshops I have conducted in schools. I am currently listed on the Washington State Arts Commission Roster of Art Educators, so I am often hired as an artist-in-residence at one school for two or more weeks. Working in public schools, I face the challenge of including several hundred children in an art experience that lasts only a few weeks. Depending upon the amount of time and the number of children I have to work with, I adapt my instruction to provide the best experience for the situation. I have developed various curricula to fit different situations and grade levels.

In all of my workshops, I always start by asking the students about their favorite animated television shows and movies. As can be expected, the most to-the-moment properties are cited, mainstream, commercial stuff. But talking about these properties in a school setting is very exciting for the children, and engages them in a way that allows me to focus their attention on the concepts being presented. The idea is that they will watch those shows differently after having experienced creating animation themselves. One of my goals is to show that animation is an art form as well as a career path. 

Essential Learning
In the State of Washington, public schools are regulated by a set of guidelines called the Essential Academic Learning Requirements or EALRs, which define benchmarks for learning at each grade level. Sets of EALRs exist for 10 content areas: Reading, Writing, Math, Communications, Mathematics, Science, Civics, Economics, Geography, History and Health, and an 11th has just been introduced for the Arts, a category that includes Visual Art, Performing Arts, Music and Dance. Obviously, there is not and will probably never be a category for Animation, but I believe that the art of animation is an ideal companion art form for connecting not only the arts but also other content areas. I am a supporter of multi-disciplinary education and am always looking for ways to use animation as a learning tool in helping teachers teach other subjects. As art education is virtually eliminated from public school education by school systems facing budget cuts, such creative integration of the arts will be a key component of successful education reform in the future.

Over and over, I have observed commonalities in the ways that children of various ages respond to animation instruction. A pattern has emerged that seems to naturally fit with the learning benchmarks set forth in the EALRs. Children's understanding of what I like to call "Animation Logic," or how animation works, goes hand in hand with concepts learned at each grade level. I have observed children's comprehension of animation logic on several levels as it connects with other content areas. These include:

  • Math: Comprehension of multiplication, division and fractions help children understand that 24 frames are combined to create one second of animation.

  •  The Arts: Aesthetic principles of design, composition, contrast and visual symbols; Motor skills, hand-eye coordination and the ability to repeat a drawing are helpful in creating animation.

  • Reading and Writing: Principles of storytelling, story structure, characters and settings help children express themselves beyond the realm of experimentation.

  • Science: Scientific principles of visual perception, cameras and projection technology are extremely high-level and can only be brushed upon before intermediate grade levels of six and up.

  • Physics: Physical laws and limitations of movement, velocity, gravity, transformation and metamorphosis are also complex ideas that come into play when children are having their second or third experience of creating animation. This is when they begin to apply the laws of the natural world to their animation.

Much of what I teach also ties in with "Media Literacy," an increasingly important item on school's agendas. Although these principles are helpful in the process of learning animation, they are not a prerequisite to a child having an experience creating animation. I have adapted my instruction for each grade level. 

Case Study: Flipbooks
My most common residency is two weeks long. In this time frame, I have found that flipbooks are the simplest way to work with many children. There are multiple class groups, and I spend one period with each, then they visit the "studio" where my animation equipment is set up-usually on the stage or in a spare room-- while the flipbooks are being filmed.

In the 40 minutes that I get to spend with each class group, after I listen to them talk about their favorite animation, I have them gather in a circle on the reading area of the classroom floor. I let them handle and share 30 examples of small hand-held flipbooks, looking at them "fast," flipping the book forward and backward to see the whole motion, and "slow," turning each page of the flipbook one at a time to see the changes made in each drawing. We pass the flipbooks around as I review them one-on-one with children and discussion among students is encouraged. When it seems they have grasped the concept, I ask them if they are ready to make their own flipbooks, and the response is always a loud "yes!" from the group. The children return to their desks and get a pencil out while I pass out 5 x 8-inch, 100-page pads of unlined paper, which are pre-taped at the binding to prevent pages from falling out. While I demonstrate on a large pad, we start the flipbooks together. Starting at the bottom page of the pad, each student draws a dot, then together we make the dot bigger and bigger on each page for five pages. This demonstrates the first technique they learn for animation: change of size. I go on to teach them four techniques for animation that they then have the option of using. They can change: 

  • Size: Making an image progressively larger or smaller.

  • Shape: Progressively altering the shape of an image until it becomes something else. Also called morphing for metamorphosis.

  • Position: Changing the location of an image to create the illusion of it moving around.

  • Add/Subtract: Tracing and then adding or subtracting part of an image on each page to create the effect of something being drawn or erased by an invisible hand.

The students have one week to finish the flipbooks during classroom "free time" and recess. Once I collect the books, I film them "on threes," holding each drawing for three frames, which makes one second out of every eight drawings. In the average school, with about 300 students, the flipbooks combined make a video about one hour long. 

Frame-by-Frame, Grade by Grade
Now I am going to show you a video of samples of flipbooks by each grade level, K-6, and point out some of the typical characteristics.

In Kindergarten, when children are age 5 and 6, they:

  • Can draw the same or similar image repeatedly. They are learning about patterns and repetition, which enables them to draw an image repeatedly for at least four pages. After that, the short attention span of this age group takes over and causes the child to change the image they are drawing, essentially "starting over."

  • Like to draw the same thing, and are often taught "how to draw" various simple things such as a tree, a face, or to write their name. The way to get the best finished animation results from this age group is to instruct them to draw something over and over again. First, find what they like to draw, then ask them to turn the page and draw "another one."

  • Are not capable of tracing one drawing over another. They are better off drawing something again from scratch.

  • Can trace the outline of their hand on the page, and this is a fun way to animate for kids who get stuck.

In First Grade, when children are age 6 and 7, they:

  • Have a longer attention span, can keep drawing the same image for more pages than a Kindergartener.

  • Can move the position of an image sequentially on each page.

  • Can change the size of an image one page at a time, particularly an increase in size.

  • Are finding ways to tell stories, and have a particular interest in natural occurrences of metamorphosis, such as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly or a bird egg hatching.

  • Are influenced by media they consume, often trying to depict characters from their favorite TV shows.

  • Gain an emerging ability to morph shapes.

  • Try to tell elaborate stories like ones they are reading, and often draw images with large changes, looking more like comic books than animation.

In Second Grade, when children are age 7 and 8, they:

  • Really grasp morphing, changing shape of an object slowly. Can change the shape of a complex object.

  • Draw letters of the alphabet as images.

  • Frequently use symbols in drawing: sun, moon, house, star, flower, etc.

  • Begin to demonstrate an abstract sensibility, drawing similar shapes or patterns to create an animated design.

  • Are learning geometry, and often draw shapes: triangle, square, circle, etc.

  • Can definitely animate but still a bit too fast. Interestingly, at this age they learn about basic fractions, ½, ¼, but not small enough to understand 24 frames per second. Technically, at 3 frames per drawing and 24 frames per second, each drawing is 1/8 of a second.

  • Mimic each other, want to be like their peers.

In Third Grade, when children are age 8 and 9, they:

  • Learn the first multiplication tables, and have learned fractions, so they have a rudimentary understanding of parts making up a whole, which can be applied to understanding animation.

  • Really grasp and focus on the additive methods of animating, creating a drawing one step at a time.

  • Are often trying to tell stories that are too elaborate.

  • Are able to draw within a constrained area-the TV frame zone is only for grades 3 and up.

  • Want to tell stories about their lives, and express emotion.

In Fourth Grade, when children are age 9 and 10, they:

  • Learn multiplication and division, and really understand the animation phenomenon of 24 images or eight drawings creating one second.

  • Can understand optical illusions, such as an increase in the size of an image creating the appearance of an object getting closer to the viewer.

  • Are able to visualize and draw different body positions of characters to create believable locomotion. This entails visualizing the action in "slow-motion," which I sometimes act out with the children.

  • Can tell stories in stages, and often draw scene "cuts" into their flipbooks.

  • Often opt for the additive method.

  • Often depict scenes based on themes being studied in class, such as Native American culture.

  • Get into the pure concept of motion, and often create abstract sequences of just shapes or lines moving.

In Fifth Grade, when children are age 10 and 11, they:

  • Start to lose ability to create simple good animation because of their stronger urge to tell complex stories. Comic books may be more appropriate for this age. They are too impatient to focus on something simple without proper supervision.

  • Often use the additive process to create an image, then subtract to make it disappear.

  • Often depict sports action like skateboarding, baseball and basketball.

  • Begin to develop personal style and a desire to be creative and original.

  • Begin to depict violence such as accidents, rockets, explosions.

  • Have social influences, wanting to depict themselves and their friends acting out in their "movie." Often put their names and other words into the pages.

  • Even though they understand the frame rates and sufficiently repeat images, they rarely make the deduction themselves that words would need to be repeated for several pages in order to be read.

In Sixth Grade, when children are age 11 and 12, they:

  • Definitely grasp the concepts of 24 frames per second, and often come up with amazing concepts for timing, cycles, and economical use of their drawings. They find ways to make shortcuts.

  • Often depict action, especially sports, violence, etc.

  • Do very well with metamorphosis; some more than others.

  • Use action lines as seen in comic books.

  • Social influence gets in the way of true creativity.

  • Want to depict vulgar actions and scatological humor, to challenge teachers and parents, and impress peers.

  • Want to make fun of teachers and others.

  • Have inhibitions about their drawing ability, which limits what risks they are willing to take when trying to animate.

  • Need to own their images, have an independent identity.

  • Sometimes display a sensibility for abstract images.

In conclusion, animation is an art form that combines aspects of several other art forms and several academic content areas. It can be taught to students of any age, provided the expectations and instruction are tailored to match the learning capacities at each level.

Article: Integrate with Stop Motion by Joe Dockery

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