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The development of children’s drawing

Drawing is a go-to activity for many parents with young children. Its appeal is obvious, it’s quick to prepare, easy to manage and often keeps them quiet for ages!

But have you ever looked closely at your child’s drawing? Have you stared hard at their scribbles trying to decipher what they’ve drawn? Or worried what their sudden over-use of a black crayon might mean for their mental health? I still remember the feeling of pride when my children brought me their first recognisable stick man. And I’m sure I’m not alone in pondering whether my children have inherited their creative gene from me or their father!

What you might not know is that children tend to go through similar artistic stages as they grow. This blog aims to describe that journey in the hope that you can identify aspects of your own child’s drawing. Of course, every child is different and some will not follow the same path so treat this as a guide. I’ve used age brackets here to give some context to the typical timeline but, as with all developmental milestones, there will be some children who fall outside these.

In the beginning (12 months – 18 months)

At this point, your child is exploring cause and effect. Any marks they make are random. They are learning that their hand can sometimes leave a trail. When they notice this correlation it can be hugely exciting for them. However, don’t be surprised if your little one is more interested in trying to eat the crayon at this age! That too is completely normal! Many ‘first’ crayons, pens and pencils are chunky in size to make it easier for young children to hold them. Some are spherical in shape to enable the child to use their whole hand to grab it (spherical grasp) while others are more cylindrical.

If your child is holding a traditionally shaped chunky pencil you’ll likely see them use what’s called a Palmar Supinate Grasp. Palmar refers to the use of the palm and ‘supinate’ describes the position of the arm and wrist in relation to the rest of the body. It’s also sometimes called ‘the fist grip’ as your child will effectively be making a fist around the pencil.

If you watch your little one draw at this age they will be moving their whole arm from their shoulder. It’s best to give them a large piece of paper as they will have little control of where they draw! You can also try displaying the paper in a vertical position on an easel or chair back to give them a different opportunity to explore. The strength of their marks at this stage may be tentative and faint or they could be wild and strong. Some researchers believe this is an early indication of their personality type. I’d love to know what you think, comment below and tell me about your toddler’s marks and their personality type.

Gaining experience (18months – 2 years)

With continued opportunities to practise mark making you will begin to see some controlled marks amongst the random scribbles! Look out for vertical and horizontal lines, these are the first signs of the next stage in your child’s artistic journey.

At this age any drawing activity your child takes part in is all about the process – the resulting artwork is not important to them. They will enjoy drawing and painting as they can gain pleasure from the sensory stimulation. They’ll likely also appreciate the freedom to make large arm movements as they gain further control of their muscles and motor skills. Not to mention the excitement they’ll have of seeing the lines they are creating.

Beware this is the prime age for children to start drawing in places you’d rather they didn’t, like the wall or the sofa cushions! My advice, think very carefully about where you store the crayons and don’t leave them unsupervised during creative play!

Controlled ‘Scribbling’ (2-3 Years) Children’s drawings during this period tend to include horizontal and vertical lines, circle shapes (not perfect circles but approximations), loops, loose spirals, crosses and dots. They’ll make these types of marks repeatedly, on purpose. You’ll also likely notice a dominant hand appearing around this age (although it can also be later).

They’re unlikely to want to draw anything in particular, it’s still all about the process rather than the outcome but they may start to use marks to represent movement. For example, they may draw lines as they make the noise of a car zooming around the page. During this period they may start labelling their drawing after the fact, i.e. they might notice a particular shape and think it looks like something but won’t usually have started with the intention of drawing it.

In terms of their pencil grip and posture, you’ll start to notice their grip change to something that resembles the way they hold their spoon at mealtimes. It’s called the digital pronate grasp. You’ll see all the fingers and thumb (digits) point down towards the tip of the pencil and their palm also points down towards the paper (pronate).

A person appears! (3-4 years)

This is an exciting stage and is usually when you’ll first see some human-like figures. I say human, they’ll probably look more like tadpoles as they usually consist of a circular head with two straight arms or legs coming out of it.

It’s not unusual to see items randomly drawn on the page either, for example, a person might appear to be out of proportion to the house which appears to be floating in the sky. This is because there are many things to keep in mind when drawing, the size, shape, overall plan, outline and spacing on the page to leave room for other elements to name just a few! It’s no wonder a toddler’s drawing looks all a little ad-hoc at times!

At this age, your child will start to name their drawings more often. They still don’t usually start with a clear idea in mind but are more likely to talk about their picture as they are doing it.

You’ll see some further shapes appearing in their drawings now too. Circles, squares, triangles and ovals are common. During this period you’ll likely notice your child starts to join these shapes together to form larger drawings.

Your child’s pencil grip at this stage will likely change again. This time you’ll see they now hold the pencil nearer the tip. They may control it with their thumb and index finger while resting on the knuckle of their middle finger. This is called the static tripod grip as it involves three (tri) fingers. The static part is so-called because your child will keep their fingers still as they move the pencil, instead they move their whole arm or wrist. Alternatively, they may use four fingers, three on the pencil and the other two tucked into the palm. This is called the quadrupod grasp and is considered a functional grip.

Preschool artist (4-5 years)

While the static tripod grip is almost the final stage in pencil grip evolution, the movement of the fingers differentiates it from the dynamic tripod grip which is considered the final, most functional grasp. This usually displays later (between 4-5 years old). This dynamic grip allows your child to be more precise with their lines and gives them more control.

Drawings of humans will now become more detailed with extra details like facial features, arms, fingers and a body. This stage has long been a source of discussion amongst psychologists since Florence Goodenough created the Draw-A-Man test in 1926. It was a tool which claimed that how a child drew a person could be scored and would then indicate their intelligence. It was later renamed the Draw-A-Person test and has been redesigned and investigated by several different psychologists over the years. Give it a Google if you’re interested, the test is explained online and, in my opinion, is fairly harmless provided your child is willing to draw a person and you interpret the results with a hefty pinch of salt!

Apart from how they draw people, you might also notice your child uses colour at random – choosing to change colour because they want to rather than because of what they are drawing. They might choose to draw everything using a particular colour because it’s their favourite – although again, you’ll find some psychologists who would like to interpret that as an insight into the child’s mind at the time!

What can you do to help?

Your child will naturally progress through these stages, there is usually no need to explicitly teach them. What you can do is give them plenty of varied opportunities to practise their skills. Think about differing the writing materials, the paper size, colour and orientation.

You don’t need to give your child a picture to copy or tell them what they could draw. This, along with colouring books, can actually stifle their creativity. Drawing is enjoyed by so many children because it is an open-ended activity, that is, there are many different ways they can respond. If your child really is lacking inspiration then set up a piece of paper alongside them and draw yourself so they can watch you model some ideas.

Remember to praise their effort rather than the outcome. Try to avoid asking what it is they’ve drawn but rather say things like:

“I love the colours you’ve chosen”

“Those lines are brilliant, I like the way you’ve drawn long lines and short lines.”

“That’s one of my favourites, let’s find a place to hang it up.”

Or use it as a way to start a conversation:

“Wow! My favourite part is….because… Which part is your favourite?”

Research has shown that children tend to talk as they draw, creating sometimes elaborate narratives, so if you can be with them while they are drawing you could discuss and extend their play together. Studies have shown that when the drawing is complete and children tell an adult about their work they more often simply name the items or characters rather than repeat the story they created. As always this blog has ended up being much longer than I anticipated. I hope it’s been interesting and helpful for you to recognise some of the stages that your child will likely progress through. As I’ve already said, not all children follow this timeline and it is also perfectly common for children to switch between the stages depending on mood so please use this as a guide only.

I’d love to know your thoughts – does your child like drawing? Can you identify them as falling into any of these categories?

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