How toddlers learn the secret language of movies

Cary's book coverAn interview with Cary Bazalgette, author of a fascinating new book about how very young children learn to understand screen media.

My friend and former colleague Dr. Cary Bazalgette has finally published the book based on her PhD research. How Toddlers Learn the Secret Language of Movies, available from Palgrave MacMillan in the UK, is a truly innovative study, which every media teacher (and any interested parent or grandparent) should read.

Cary's book coverThe innovation is partly to do with the focus on young children – one/two-year-olds – who have been largely neglected in previous research. A great many people have strong opinions about the dangers of screen viewing for this age group, yet there is remarkably little detailed evidence. Thankfully, Cary’s approach takes us beyond narrow concerns about risks and benefits, to look at the cultural dimensions of children’s engagement with film and television.

The innovation is also to do with methodology and theory. Like some earlier researchers who’ve studied infants, Cary looked at her own grandchildren; and she gathered some really fascinating data, not least by using video to record their facial expressions, body movements, and physical interactions with the screen. In interpreting this material, she draws on theoretical approaches that have rarely been used in this field, most notably theories of ‘embodied cognition’.

For much of her career at the British Film Institute, Cary worked to promote the possibilities of media education with primary age children: her most accessible book on this can be found here. This new book takes the story earlier, to look at what children know even before they come into formal education. However, it’s a study that has important implications for what and how we might be teaching children about media. I ‘interviewed’ Cary about these issues via e-mail, and these were her responses:

DB: Most of your previous research has looked at primary school children. Could you tell us why you decided to focus on this much younger age group, and particularly why you decided to research your own grandchildren?

CB portrait copyCB: I first had the idea of studying how toddlers learn to make sense of moving image media when I had my own children, in the 1970s. I was on the way to starting a PhD at the Institute of Education on this very topic, when I was urged to apply for the Education Officer job at the British Film Institute. I even hoped to do the PhD while I worked at the BFI, but soon realised that wouldn’t be possible.

I did have to push for BFI Education to pay attention to the primary age-group (which they initially considered bizarre) and I set up the Primary Media Education Working Group in collaboration with the Schools Inspectorate, which eventually produced Primary Media Education: A Curriculum Statement in 1988 and helped to get some references to media into the first National Curriculum. In the 1980s the National Film Theatre employed my husband Terry Staples to programme weekly Junior NFT screenings. He programmed that strand (and, more briefly, a Children’s London Film Festival) for many years. As he and I and the children attended the screenings almost every weekend and all of the CLFF films, many of which were subtitled, I had many opportunities to overhear young children responding to films, parents whispering to them to explain what they didn’t understand, kids traipsing to and from the toilets in the boring bits, and our own kids’ comments afterwards.

The short film resources and teacher training that the BFI organised in the 2000s were also mainly aimed at primary schools. All these experiences kept reminding me that the Junior NFT and primary school children must all have learned about moving image media from babyhood (see Marsh et al., Digital Literacies, 2005) so the PhD idea remained in the back of my mind through the whole 27 years I was at the BFI, and after I left in 2007 I still thought about getting back to it. In 2009 my twin grandchildren were born and at the beginning of 2011 I was fascinated to see them respond in terror to an innocuous episode of In the Night Garden, at the age of 13 months, and wondered why it scared them. I decided then and there to finally get on with the PhD. The twins were 22 months old when I formally started the research, so even younger than what “very young children” usually means in academic discussions: never less than 3 and usually 5 or even 7. 2 year olds are almost never studied, for reasons that will become clear in my answer to your next question.


It’s much easier to use talk when you’re researching older children – though of course talk isn’t necessarily reliable. Could you say something about the methodological challenges of researching very young children, and how you addressed them?

Even at 22 months the twins’ speech was not very intelligible (twins are often slower to become fluently verbal). So the big methodological challenge of studying 2-year-olds (let’s call them that) is not that they don’t talk, but that the talk is mainly unintelligible to people who don’t know them. And in fact a lot of their behaviour may also be unintelligible to people outside the family. That means that they are best studied by parents or grandparents (as Darwin did, and Piaget, Halliday, Edmiston, Britton, etc), but despite those distinguished predecessors, my research method was challenged by one of those academics who think research is only valid if done with large samples – though not in the viva, luckily. The other advantage of researching children within one’s own family is that one can discuss the observations with other family members – in my case, with my own daughter and son-in-law.

ITNG proximityAnother major challenge is that 2-year-olds move around a lot, frequently change their minds about what they want to do, and certainly can’t be expected to do what you want them to do. On the other hand, they are very physical and spontaneous in their responses to things, so there’s plenty to observe – in fact too much to observe using the conventional method of sitting there and taking notes. The answer to this is to use video – my supervisor John Potter wisely told me to go and get an iPhone for my PhD research. An iPhone is not very conspicuous, and kids are familiar with them anyway. I tried using a tripod but found that fixed camera was hopeless – they moved around too much and if they saw it they were fascinated: so it has to be handheld – using landscape framing, of course. Close viewing of the videos (and re-viewing, and re-viewing, and listening…) reveals fascinating physical detail (which I’ll discuss in answer to your next question).

For researchers who want to study 2-year-olds but don’t have any, there are considerable challenges to do with access and permissions, and the chances are that home visits may not be made often enough to deal with the next big challenge, which is that 2-year-olds are growing up fast. I had the twins at my house for 24 hours each week, and often saw them at their house as well as well as spending holidays with the family. I was also in close and frequent touch with my daughter who would alert me to developments. My videos show very clearly (if you watch them closely enough) how from one week to the next the changes could be dramatic: sudden increases in dexterity, fluency, memory, interests and preferences, walking and climbing abilities. What didn’t change was the intensity of their concentration and their desire to re-view things.

So this was, necessarily, an ethnographically-styled case study of 20 months’ duration, in which I amassed about 13 hours of iPhone video and four parental interviews. I’ll discuss the methodological challenge of analysing all these data in my next answer.

One of your major theoretical innovations is to apply theories of ‘embodied cognition’ to studying children and media. Can you explain the contribution this theory makes, as well as any possible limitations it might have?

I started my observations in September 2011 and didn’t encounter publications about embodied cognition until autumn 2016, when I was wondering how to tackle my data analysis and noticed that a book called Embodied Cognition and Cinema, edited by Coëgnarts and Kravanja, had just come out. This was soon after a cautious suggestion from Lydia Plowman that I might perhaps investigate embodied cognition, which she thought “might be rubbish” but maybe I could take a look.

Particular chapters interested me: Chattah on music, Ward on sound design; Wojciechowski on “diakresis”. Reading these led me on to Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Gibson’s Ecology of Visual Perception, the Parma University researchers (Gallese, Sinigaglia, Rizzolatti and others, working on mirror neurons) and many more. When one refers to “embodied cognition theory” there’s quite a bit of picking and choosing to do: I think it should be considered a loose grouping of theories, or even a “field”, rather than “a theory”.

C+MrBloom(1)What I found useful were the studies that enabled me to look again at the children’s extraordinary levels of concentration and to discover often minute physical signals such as jaw position, hand and finger movements, bodily rigidity, breathing rates and frowns, which can be interpreted as indicating levels and direction of interest and, particularly, emotional responses, and which are often less easy to see in toddlers than in adults. Toddlers’ extreme emotional responses are well-known, but they don’t do those all the time. What they do do all the time is learn, and one can observe the physical signs of learning in progress. So it was the neurologists’ work that I found particularly useful, for instance in explaining how the motor system and emotional system are linked (I have a lot to say in the book about Panksepp’s identification of “seeking” as an important emotion).

So I didn’t take “the theory” and apply it: I used a sort of “grounded theory” approach, searching the literature in this field for what was relevant to my analysis and revealed further ideas. I didn’t use any of the phenomenological work on film that also comes under the “embodied” heading (e.g. Sobchak’s The Address of the Eye) and I gave up on Merleau-Ponty pretty quickly. At the same time I drew on many other scholars in the fields of infant and toddler development, some of whom had also used the neurological findings (e.g. Trevarthen, Tomasello).


Let’s imagine you have foolishly accepted an invitation to write a piece for Mumsnet (the UK parenting website) about your research. What would be the three key ‘takeaways’ you would aim to get across?

This is assuming I wouldn’t be aiming for “today’s top thread” I suppose, though I could try “AIBU to like watching toddlers watch TV”? (AIBU = Am I being unreasonable.) So maybe….ut:

  1. TV and film production follows rules and conventions that we’ve all learned to understand, but we did that so early in life that we’ve forgotten about it. So watch your toddler watching TV! They’re learning to understand it and that can be really fascinating.
  2. “Screen time” rules are mostly based on very dubious research. After all, how would you set about proving that teenagers do badly in school if they watched too much TV when they were toddlers?
  3. Don’t keep offering your toddler “more of the same” TV series and films (as in, “she liked that so maybe she’d like this”). Look for TV series and short films on YouTube that are a bit different from what she’s already watching but still likely to appeal to her. She’ll enjoy the challenge.


Much of the current debate about younger children and media has focused on the issue of ‘screen time’, and how far it should be restricted. The American Psychological Association, for example, suggests that the youngest children should not watch screens at all except for video chatting, and that between 18 and 24 months screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver. How do you respond to that debate?

I’m all for toddlers having older viewers watching with them when they can. Learning to understand movies (by which I mean TV, films, and anything else on a screen that moves) includes learning from co-viewers what they like and don’t like, what reactions are acceptable, and getting clues that help them understand the movie better (so long as none of that takes the form of formal instruction or admonitions). Watching a movie with others often helps toddlers to realise that there may be more to it and a second (and maybe third or fourth) viewing is justified.

A+C+animatouBut imposing time limits just oppresses parents and is almost bound to make them feel guilty (apart from the few who stick to it rigidly and feel smug about it, which is not good either). Strict time-limits are not how family life or cultural consumption work. I was so delighted to see Blum-Ross and Livingstone’s comment in their paper “The Trouble with Screen Time Rules” (in Mascheroni et al (eds), Digital Parenting: The Challenges for Families in the Digital Age (Nordicom 2018): “For parents caught between fears of media harms and hopes for a digital future, a more nuanced conversation of the nature and purpose of screen media in different contexts is now urgent” (p 185). I like to think that I’ve contributed to the “more nuanced conversation” in my new book.


For most of your career, you have been arguing the case for media education in schools. What would you see as the implications of your current research for media education?

What was unfortunate about teachers’ amazement at children’s responses to watching a film (see my first answer) was that it led to most of them seeing film simply as a stimulus rather than as a cultural form, as worthy of study in its own right as any other form of “the best which has been thought and said” (to quote Gove quoting Arnold).

My emphasis in the book though is on the prior learning that children have achieved before they come to school, and I end with the argument that this should be recognised and built upon. I don’t go any further than this in the book because my aim is to dispel the kind of nonsense you referred to in your previous question and I would like the book to reach parents and Early Years professionals and trainees.

9781849205764If this prior learning were recognised and if it were seen as necessary to build upon it (two enormous “ifs” there), then teachers would have classes from reception to Year 9 watching and critically discussing moving-image material and making their own films – which undoubtedly many of them would be doing at home anyway, and distributing them to friends or more widely. This would however involve some radical changes to existing views such as the current Ofcom definition of “media literacy”, which you have so admirably dissected. One of the important outcomes here – and by no means the only one – would actually address Ofcom’s anxiety about fake news and hate messages by ensuring that children would have to think about how to make a moving-image communications that they felt were truthful and honest. This work could also enable them to find more ways in to the literary texts they have to study in English, and to thinking more confidently about the structures and styles they could use in their own written work.