How scribbles tell a story of child development and discovery

Published on Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Art plays an important role in child development and promotes the expansion of visual, motor and social skills. In addition children can use art to express their thoughts and feelings and as a way of exploring and experimenting.

While each child’s art is unique there is a universal pattern of development in drawing and all children go through the same stages albeit at different ages.

The first stage is ‘experimenting’ where young children learn how to make scribbles on paper. This is usually around toddler stage. This stage promotes muscle coordination, and control improves with practice. Just as babbling is a natural way to gain language, scribbling is a natural gateway to muscle learning control and coordination.

As children gain greater control of their drawing and writing tools you are likely to see more shapes emerge and their creations will take up less space on the page. As children are able to consistently create circles and lines, you may see circles with lines radiating from them.

The next stage is where these circles and lines start to become objects like people, this happens when children are able to represent what they are thinking about. With continued practice, finer details start to appear such as people shapes, with lines for fingers and scribbles for eyebrows.

By preschool age children are drawing what they know about the world, rather than attempting to capture a photographic mirror of reality. While approaching realism, drawings remain fanciful throughout the preschool years with imagination leading colour, composition, and content.

A child’s art is unique. They create a world where ground and sky never meet at the horizon and all of the action takes place in the air gap between. It is a place where there is differing perspectives, where trees and people can be the same size, where grass looks lovely in shades of purple, and rainbows form without a drop of rain.

Here are some suggestions for helping the children in your service to capture and express their inner artist:

  • Forego the temptation to provide colouring book type outlines for children to fill in. Instead provide a variety of shapes, colours, textures of papers, and a variety of drawing tools for children to create their own art.
  • Play beautiful music to accompany drawing. Talk about how the tempo of music changes the drawings.
  • Give children the freedom to choose the subjects and colours of their drawings. We should not dictate how to draw or how to colour the child's project. If we do that, it becomes the adult's project, which the child is forced to emulate.
  • Rather than drawing for a child, ask helpful questions and make suggestions. Encourage children's efforts and voice confidence in their ability to solve their drawing problems.
  • Rather than asking the child "What is it?" invite the child to tell you about the drawing. Asking "What is it?" suggests that the child has failed to depict what he or she intended.

Children develop a wide range of skills through exploring and experimenting with art and a wide range of materials and resources. These include:

Communication skills:

When a child draws a picture, paints a portrait, or hangs buttons from a wobbly mobile, that child is beginning to communicate visually. A child may draw to document an actual experience like playing in the park, release feelings of joy by painting swirling colours, or share an emotionally charged experience. Art goes beyond verbal language to communicate feelings that might not otherwise be expressed.

Problem-solving skills:

When children experiment with art, they are testing possibilities and working through challenges, much like a scientist who experiments and finds solutions. Should I use a shorter piece of wool to balance my mobile? This tape isn’t holding – what should I try instead? How did I make brown – I thought I made orange? Art allows children to make their own assessments, while also teaching them that a problem may have more than one answer. Instead of following specific rules or directions, the child’s brain becomes engaged in the discovery of “how” and “why.” Even when experimenting or learning how to handle art materials effectively, children are solving challenges and coming up with new ways to handle unexpected outcomes.

Social and emotional skills:

Art helps children come to terms with themselves and the control they have over their efforts. Through art, they also practice sharing and taking turns, as well as appreciating one another’s efforts. Art fosters positive mental health by allowing a child to show uniqueness as well as success and accomplishment, which are all part of a positive self-concept.

Fine motor skills:

Holding a paintbrush so that it will make the desired marks, snipping paper with scissors into definite shapes, drawing with a crayon, or squeezing glue from a bottle in a controlled manner all help develop a child’s fine motor skills and control of materials.

Self-expression and creativity:

Children express themselves through art on a fundamental level. Sometimes their artwork is the manifestation of that expression, but more often, the physical process of creating is the expression. Picture a toddler who has a new baby sister and is busily pummelling his fists into playdough; a six-year-old joyfully painting flowers with huge arm movements blending, reds and yellows; a ten year-old drawing a portrait of her grandmother who recently passed away.

An article published by He Kupu (The Word), Early childhood: Learning through visual art, says: “Like free-play, children must have the freedom to explore and experiment within the arts, whether dance, music, drama or visual art. Furthermore, as infants, toddlers and young children are all in different developmental periods, the arts provide each stage the opportunity to further their holistic development and learning of the arts while also encouraging their individuality.

“Arts education should promote holistic development in a culturally sensitive and exploratory environment, giving guided support if needed while also discovering and fostering on what a child finds aesthetically pleasing. Participating in the arts plays a crucial role in the way a child makes sense of their environment, their world, and ultimately, themselves.”

References and further reading

Thanks to Bright Ring Publishing  and Early Childhood News for their insights. The importance of drawing

Exploring your mind: The importance of art for child development

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