Scribbles, lines, and first shapes: Toddlers discovering that drawing is fun.
Through scribbling, your child discovers the pleasure of drawing. Before 3 years old, they draw their first lines by making circular movements. Their drawings do not yet represent anything, but they help develop several skills.
If your child is aged 3 or older, have a look at our fact sheet Development and the benefits of drawing: 3 to 5 years old.
How do children progress to drawing?
Around 12 months, the child begins to scribble. At first, they hold the pencil with their full hand. They begin by making strokes in every direction. They are not trying to draw something, they are drawing because they like seeing the lines and colours become visible on the paper.
Around 18 months old, the toddler scribbles back-and-forth or continuous circular lines that intersect (like a spiral). This exercise allows them to experiment with different skills: Holding a pencil, controlling movement, making strokes, points, and circles. At this age, the activity itself is still what captivates the child, not the end result.
The child combines circles and strokes, which are (often incorrectly) identified as a sun. This shape may in fact represent a flower, their dad, a car, etc. Your toddler can also change what the shape represents at any moment: What was a flower is suddenly a car!
Around age 2, the child explores drawing different types of lines that they repeat more often (e.g., zigzags, waves, spirals). They are developing a memory bank of lines (a bit like an alphabet of lines) that they will use to compose their drawings.
Around age 3, the toddler will one day spontaneously bring their pencil back to their curved line and finish forming a circle. This is their first closed shape. They can also copy a previously drawn horizontal line, vertical line, and a circle. Gradually, they make increasingly smaller lines that they have better control over. At this age, the toddler knows that their drawing can represent something, but they often give it meaning once they have finished.
How do you encourage your child to draw?
- Provide your child with several types of coloured pencils and let them explore and use the pencils however they want. Little by little, they get used to holding a pencil and controlling the movements. Give them wax crayons often. Crayons develop stronger fine motor skills than felt pencils, because they are generally smaller and must be pressed more firmly to produce the colour.
- Draw with the child to show them that it’s a fun activity. Focus on the fun of drawing even if you are not really good at it yourself.
- Avoid directing your toddler or asking them to draw something specific. Telling a 2-year-old “draw me a man” is putting unnecessary pressure on them, because they are not yet capable. At this age, they are still learning how to hold the pencil and produce abstract drawings.
- Use large blank white sheets. Your child will draw making broad strokes; a large sheet will allow them to draw more things without being limited by size. Note that blank white sheets should be chosen over colouring books because they promote creativity. Moreover, at this age colouring is too advanced an activity for a toddler.
- Suggest different ways of drawing to make this activity even more interesting. For example, draw on a large sheet on the floor or use chalk on the sidewalk.
- Accept that your child may draw over their own work. Up to 4 years old, the child is not trying to make something beautiful; they want to play. They simply draw for the pleasure that it provides. Assembling, disassembling, sticking, unsticking, sticking back: Children love this type of game. This helps strengthen their self-esteem, as they learn to have control over the objects.
- Resist the temptation to show them how to draw something or to do it when they ask you to draw for them (e.g., “Dad, can you draw a cat for me?”). When you draw in your child’s place, you are creating a model that they won’t necessarily be able to reproduce the next time. This might put pressure on them or discourage them by comparing their abilities. Instead, demonstrate that you have confidence in their abilities and encourage them to try to draw what they want, for example a cat.
Ideas to give your child feedback
Instead of simply telling your child that their drawing is great, you can comment on their drawings and ask questions about what they did. This is also a good way to encourage them to draw. Here are some ideas to give your toddler feedback:
To help them feel good
I like the colours you used.
You completely covered your sheet. That’s not easy and you did it!
I like the details that you added. You’re really observant.
Your ideas are very good. I love your drawing. Only you could do this: It’s so original!
How about we scan your drawing to send it to Grandpa or your aunt Alexandra?
To help them continue drawing, but without imposing your ideas
What’s the weather like in your drawing?
Is it spring, summer, winter, or fall in your drawing?
Are there people in your drawing?
To help them explain their drawing
Oh! There’s a lot happening in this drawing! I would like you to tell me about it.
What is going on in your drawing?
Who are these people in your drawing?
Benefits of drawing
To draw, your child uses different skills that contribute to their development. They work their fine motor skills to hold the pencil, guide it on the paper, and control their movement. Achieving control in this step prepares your toddler for writing.
Drawing also develops their tactile perception (touch). When drawing, your child must feel the pencil in their hand and apply the right amount of pressure on the paper without tearing it. They are also using their perceptual skills, i.e., they practise visualizing objects and shapes in space to organize their drawing and to later copy lines and geometric shapes. This skill will help your toddler learn mathematics at school.
Drawing is also a way for the child to develop creativity and express the richness of their imagination. In addition, drawing leads your toddler to using their observational skills and knowledge since your child reproduces in images what they know about the world.
Drawing on a tablet or on paper?
Applications for drawing on a tablet can promote creativity if they allow for drawing and not just colouring. However, if your child draws with their fingers, they are not developing their fine motor skills; this would require a tablet pen. Keep in mind that the tablet is one of the many tools your toddler can use to draw. Make sure to also provide paper and pencils so they can practise using traditional materials.
To learn more, have a look at our fact sheet Drawing: fun and a whole lot more!
Things to keep in mind
A toddler begins drawing by scribbling at around 12 months.
At first, the child does not have something specific in mind, but they enjoy seeing the lines and colours appear on their paper.
When drawing, your toddler develops creativity and skills that prepare them for school.
Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: January 2020
Photos: iStock.com/ideabug and GettyImages/milanvirijevic
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
BERTHIAUME, Denise. Les arts plastiques en milieu éducatif. Montréal, Chenelière Éducation, 2012, 196 pp.
CARREAU, Dominique. “Laissez-moi vous raconter l’évolution de mes dessins,” Revue préscolaire, 52 (2), spring 2014, pp. 59-60.
ÉDUCATOUT. “13 idées pour apprendre à dessiner.” www.educatout.com
ÉDUCATOUT. “Explorer le matériel d’arts plastiques.” www.educatout.com
ÉDUCATOUT. “Faut-il enseigner aux enfants à dessiner des bonshommes?” www.educatout.com
ÉDUCATOUT. “Stimuler l’intérêt du dessin chez les enfants.” www.educatout.com
FERLAND, Francine. Le développement de votre enfant au quotidien, de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 264 pp.
GERVAIS, Marie. Libérons la créativité de nos enfants. Paris, Éditions de la Martinière, 2013, 288 pp.
ROSSANT, Lyonel (Dr.) and Jacqueline ROSSANT-LUMBROSO (Dr.). “Que révèle l’analyse des dessins d’enfant.” www.doctissimo.fr
TÊTE À MODELER. “Évolution des dessins de l’enfant.” www.teteamodeler.com
DENY, Madeleine and Barroux. Dessins, coloriages, tracés, gribouillages. Paris, Nathan, coll. Haut comme 3 pommes, 2013, 128 pp.
DIEDERICHS, Gilles and Muriel Douru. 100 activités pour libérer la créativité des enfants. Paris, Mango, coll. Happy family, 2014, 108 pp.
TULLET, Hervé. À toi de gribouiller! Paris, Bayard Jeunesse, 2007, 64 pp.