Beyond Literal Depiction: Children’s Flexible Understanding of Pictures

Romina A Vivaldi*, Melissa L Allen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Pictures can represent more than one entity, and they can also represent literal or nonliteral concepts associated with a referent. In two studies, we examined whether 4-year-olds, 6-year-olds, and adults can view pictures as both literal and nonliteral when they are presented with different contextual cues, which would indicate representational flexibility. In Study 1, children and adults were asked to name iconic pictures after hearing a story explaining how a fictional character had created or used a picture in, for instance, a literal context (e.g., a girl used a picture of a crown to represent what she wanted for Christmas) and a second story on how the same artist produced or used an identical picture in a nonliteral context (e.g., the same girl used the picture of a crown to represent what she wanted to be when she grew up). After each story, the picture was shown and participants were asked “What does this mean?” The 6-year-olds and adults, but not the 4-year-olds, showed representational flexibility in their interpretations of pictures across contexts. Study 2 provided evidence of flexible pictorial interpretations, even for the younger age group, when children were presented with a game in which they were asked to select a suitable picture to represent a nonliteral referent. Taken together, our results suggest that the conditions under which representational flexibility is elicited influence the developmental progression observed.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105208
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date20 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the parents, children, and adults who participated in this work. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Psychological Approaches for Studying Education


  • pictures
  • children
  • flexibility
  • intention
  • nonliteral
  • reference


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