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

Amy Rees
February 21, 2018

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 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 for parents 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. These little ones are "people people" 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, etc.).

Yes, all of that, just in ages two- to five-ish.

This "progression" (there it is again) is truly an oversimplification. The same kid who can draw the family in the house still makes a mean scribble. 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 cherish 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.


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