A green washable marker wedged between her five-year-old fingers, Millie Bolton was deep in concentration, impervious to the clatter of her Thornhill, Ont., kindergarten classmates as she put the finishing touches on a drawing.
When an observer asked Millie which way was up in the picture, she drew an arrow indicating the top of the page.
The squiggle spoke volumes. It demonstrated that Millie understands theory of mind - the notion that people have independent sets of knowledge and unique perspectives. It's a sophisticating level of thinking, and an important developmental hallmark - one that usually arises in kindergarten.
Throughout the school year, The Globe and Mail is following Millie and three other students through kindergarten, chronicling the year in pictures, drawings, and in their own words, as well as tracking their development. Millie is in senior kindergarten and her brother Alfie Bolton, 3, is in junior kindergarten, both in full-day programs at Westminster Public School in Vaughan, Ont.
Mekhi Rutherford, 5, is in a full-day senior kindergarten program at Ellen Fairclough Public School in Markham, Ont., and Prathmesh Mistry, 4, is in a half-day program at Homestead Public School in Brampton, Ont.
Experts in early-childhood learning, including Janette Pelletier, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, have developed creative techniques for assessing young learners. Working with an OISE graduate student, Kadria Simons, The Globe has begun employing some of these techniques with Millie, Alfie, Mekhi and Prathmesh.
Finger Puppet Interviews
Kindergarten students, like teenagers, can be spare in the answers they give about their school day. Interviewing them with finger puppets allows them to engage in imaginative play, and can help elicit more detailed answers.
"It's an effective way for students to feel comfortable in sharing their daily school experience," said Ms. Simons. "They're released from reality and allowed to open up more."
Each child was allowed to pick their own puppet, and then one for Ms. Simons, who then asked them about their experiences. The children's answers can be telling, not just in the way they communicate and their command of language, but also in the details they choose to share.
Children's artwork is full of evidence of their cognitive development. Young children will often work in scribbles, and their drawings will gain dimensions as the age. Researchers can look at the complexity of a drawing, foregrounds and backgrounds, the addition of skies and horizons, and whether objects are fixed or floating, in order to gauge a child's progress.
Boys often choose to draw unfolding actions or events, while girls tend to focus on a point in time. Some children choose to draw objects, others people.
A child's ability to grasp someone else's perspective, as demonstrated by Millie's arrow, can also emerge.
Ms. Simons sat with the children in their classroom, offered them coloured markers and papers, and asked them to draw their school experiences.
Giving children visual cues can help them open up about their experiences. Ms. Simons gave the children a digital camera, and asked them to take a picture of the five most important things in their classroom.
"It's a child's-eye-view, like a bird's-eye-view, of the classroom," Ms. Simons said.
Afterward she sat the children down and reviewed the images on a laptop, asking them to explain their choices. The explanations are key, as with Mekhi, who took a picture of a garbage can.
"It's important to clean up," he said.