Looking at Art Developmentally, Or When Is a Scribble Not Just a Scribble

Amy Rees
May 5, 2008

Like everything else, a child's artwork is a manifestation of her development at work.  And like everything else, that development is not exactly linear. 

Put another way, the first time your darling slept through the night wasn't the last time you got got up in the wee hours.  And the first time he raced all the way into the potty and made it in time wasn't the last time you cleaned up an accident.  But at each of those moments -- indeed at every moment, actually -- he was making his way, figuring it out, being his I can do it/oops I tried/maybe not/I knew I could self!

The challenge is to look for that same complicated little spirit in the endless flow of drawings, paintings, sculptures, mobiles, and thingamajigs that your little one creates.

There are moments of dramatic accomplishment, moments of promise that aren't fully understood by parents, moments of returning to older, familiar patterns.  But it's all still a marvelous window into the here's-who-I-am-today-ness of being a little person.

Sound impossible?  Here's a little primer.

Often you can see the following "progression" (a word we use very reluctantly) in a child's art during the preschool years. First, she grasps a crayon or pencil and makes a mark.  Then he coordinates his movements to make that mark where he wishes it to be.  Then she moves the mark around, making a scribble, first randomly, then with greater control sometimes, and delights in the intentional or totally unexpected results.  They he begins to name parts of his scribbles.  From the scribbles next emerges what the experts call "tadpole" figures -- figures with giant heads and underscale legs and arms.  (Yes, from scribbles, children often leap straight to people.  They are people people these little ones, indeed.)  She then begins to vary and literally to flesh out her figures, and he adds in other images of objects of great importance to him (a house, a sun, a dog, e.g.). 

This "progression" (there it is again) is truly an oversimplification.  The same kid who can draw the family in the house also makes a mean scribble still.  And the scribbler may be quite clear that his scribble is very much a picture of his family, even if he hasn't mentioned it.

So, that scribble your little one just drew -- ask her about it.  And treasure it for what it is: a snapshot of your little one's mind.  Like any parents, we like even the blurry, eyes-closed pictures of our little ones that any outsider would toss in the trash. 

Now you know why we save the scribbles too.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    You mention, "she". Keep in mind that boys often tell stories with their early drawings. A big circle could easily be a spaceship flying around a planet (even if the planet or even the spaceship isn't shown). A recognizable object often isn't the point, but interesting to probe into what they're interested in depicting!

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    I love the emphasis on the developmental aspect of drawing progression. Some kids are better at capturing mood or movement in their art, and others are more adept at the technical aspects of detail and accuracy. Celebrate it all!

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 3

    Resist the temptation to ask what the 'artist' is drawing, and instead say, 'tell me about your picture'. Sometimes it is not something, but an expression of joy or sorrow. It is also more respectful and informative.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 4

    For the budding 'artist', resist asking what it is and instead, say, 'tell me about it'. Sometimes, it is an expression of joy or sorrow and is not SOMETHING. It is more open ended and respectful to children.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 5

    I always make a point to ask my child what the drawing is and write down on the back exactly what she says. Kids come up with the cutest, craziest explanations that you really want to remember word for word.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 6

    I have just started reading Being Savvy and I am really enjoying it - I now log on every day! You do a great job of reminding me of the wonder of childhood and helping me step outside of all the rush, rush my days as a Mom seem to be full of. Rather than being frustrated at the mess my daughter has made with her crayons under the table, I'll close my eyes and do as you suggest. Thanks.

    over a year ago

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