From scribbles to people : your child’s drawings evolve as he grows.
By Nathalie Vallerand
From scribbles to people : your child’s drawings evolve as he grows.
Drawing comes naturally to children. The first time they do it is quite by accident. “A baby will put his fingers in his baby food and realize that he can smear it,” says Denise Berthiaume, author of the French-language book Les arts plastiques en milieu éducatif and former childhood education techniques teacher. “He sees that by moving his hand something happens, and because he likes the effect, he does it again.”
14-month-old Lili started painting when she was around nine months old. “At the beginning, her grandmother or I would dip her fingers in the finger paint,” says mom, Cloée, who laminated her daughter’s first “masterpiece” and put it up on the fridge. “Now she comes up with her own beautiful creations.”
Children are able to hold a crayon around 10 months old. Of course, it’s still a challenge for them to hang on to it. Sometimes they hold it backwards, drop it, place it in their mouths or have fun making it fall to the floor. At first, they just draw lines on the paper, but with time, they acquire more back and forth movements. “Your child’s first attempts are uncontrolled, but his hand-eye coordination will improve with practice and he’ll have better control over his movements,” explains Dominique Carreau, teacher at the School of Visual and Media Arts at Université du Québec à Montréal and early childhood visual arts specialist.
Towards 18 months old, toddlers begin to doodle with continuous circular lines that overlap (like a spiral). Then one day, between the ages of 2 and 3, they draw their first closed shape, a kind of crooked circle. Even if this happens somewhat by accident at first, children quickly learn that they have to lift their crayon when the line closes to form the circle. They then repeat this action again and again, as does 2-year-old Étienne, who never gets tired of drawing circles. “He draws circles saying ‘nose, eyes, mouth’,” says mom, Élisabeth. “Recently, he’s started using a lot of different colours in his drawings.”
Children then connect lines to their circles. “Adults often think it’s a sun,” says Dominique Carreau. “But the child may have drawn a cat or a tractor. He can also change his mind from one minute to the next. When we tell him it’s a sun, we’re limiting his imagination. It’s better to describe what we see or ask him what he drew and avoid contradicting him.” Around the age of 2 or 3, children know that their drawings can represent something, but they often only decide what it is, once they’ve finished their drawing!
“Look what I’ve drawn!”
It’s only between the ages of 3 and 4 that children decide what they want to draw beforehand. Even so, it’s still difficult for you to recognize what that is. This is also the age when they start drawing human figures. These figures will evolve over time, as William, father to 4-year-old Claire, has learned. “There’s a huge difference between the figures she drew at three years old and those she draws now, which are much more detailed. Her figures now have a neck, fingers, a belly button and curly hair.”
A child’s first attempts at drawing people often consist of a circle for the head and two lines attached to the head for the legs. Two other lines appear next, starting on the side of the head, to represent arms. The eyes, nose, mouth, hair and other elements then appear over time. Eventually, children add a circle or a square under the head to represent the body.
Even though the people they draw usually have all their limbs, children sometimes leave them out. This is normal. “They draw what’s important,” explains visual arts specialist Dominique Carreau. “If their person is running, arms aren’t necessary.”
“Another interesting fact is that children don’t naturally draw stick figures,” adds Dominique Carreau. “When they do, they’re actually trying to imitate a drawing they saw being done by an adult. Ideally, therefore, children should be given complete freedom to draw people the way they want to. If you leave it up to your child, his drawings will be much more expressive, since they represent his imaginary and symbolic world.”
Between 4 and 5 years old, the characters and objects children draw float in space. They are placed next to each other, but are not necessarily related by a theme or placed on any surface. Between 5 and 6 years old, the elements in their drawings start to make up a whole. For example, a child may draw a background behind his characters or decide to tell a story by organizing the various elements included in his drawing. The size of the head or body parts may still be off and the colours may not always reflect reality. This is because children represent what they know about objects and not what they see. However, as they get better at drawing, their pictures become more realistic.
My child doesn’t like drawing
Should I insist? The best way is to try to make the activity even more interesting for your child. For example, you could stick large pieces of paper to the floor under the kitchen table, or outside. Drawing with chalk on the sidewalk is also fun. Your child might like to draw in a hiding place or in the dark with a flashlight. “Another idea is asking your child to do ‘the ugliest drawing in the world’. This works well with children who don’t like drawing because they don’t think they’re any good at it,” says Dominique Carreau. It may also be that your child gets discouraged because he finds your drawings nicer than his. In such cases, it’s better to let him draw on his own.
Skills for better learning
Drawing allows children to develop skills that will help them learn better at school. “For example, the use of observation and mental representation skills allow them to create pictures in their heads,” says Natasha Rouleau, occupational therapist and head of clinical teaching at Université de Montréal. “This will prove useful in problem solving and geometry later on, as well as in reading comprehension.”
To organize the various elements in their drawings, children must also visualize objects in space (spatial perception). This skill helps them grasp the characteristics that make up people and objects, such as their shape, volume and position in the environment. This also helps in learning math and geometry.
Drawing develops skills that will help your child learn better in school.
By drawing, toddlers also get used to holding a crayon, as well as directing and controlling their hand, which develops their fine motor skills. “This will help when they start to learn to write,” says Natasha Rouleau. But there’s more. “Research shows that fine motor skills are a factor in academic achievement, not just with regard to writing but for other subjects as well.” It would seem that complex tasks requiring a good command of fine motor skills activate the areas of the brain involved in learning.
This link with academic achievement mostly relates to the fine motor skills acquired using tools such as crayons, chalk, pastels, paintbrushes and so forth. “The more a child aims for precision when adding detail to a drawing, for example, the more he develops his fine motor skills,” explains the occupational therapist.
For this reason, she thinks colouring books are fine from time to time. “Children practice precision when they try to colour inside the lines. So it would be a shame not to let them do colouring on the pretext that it limits their creativity,” she adds. Several specialists are against colouring for this reason, however. Dominique Carreau is among them. “Colouring doesn’t allow children to use their imaginations as much as free drawing does. Plus, it can give children the impression that the pictures they’re colouring are nicer than the ones they draw themselves.”
Some experts therefore recommend pictures to be completed, as opposed to ones that just require colouring in. Children can add on to what is already drawn, and since this drawing only takes up part of the space (e.g. a pond or a tree), they can therefore complete the picture as they wish—with frogs, flowers, birds, characters, and so on.
There are other ways to teach your child how to handle a crayon with precision aside from giving him colouring books. Occupational therapist Natasha Rouleau suggests drawing lines of small dots, drawing lots of circles and colouring them in, or colouring very small areas (e.g. eyes or spots on an animal, mandalas, etc.). And don’t expect too much of your pre-schooler. Before age four, it’s rare for a child’s drawings or colouring to be very precise.