Drawing: fun and a whole lot more!

Drawing is fun, costs next to nothing and is the perfect activity when you want some peace and quiet at home. That’s already a lot. But it gets even better! Drawing also helps toddlers develop their creativity and acquire skills that will serve them later in school.


Drawing is serious business

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.

Making room for creativity

Drawing is a great way for your budding Picasso to develop her creativity and express all the wonders of her imagination.

Drawing is a great way for your budding Picasso to develop her creativity and express all the wonders of her imagination.

When children draw, they invent stories in their heads. They think about how to draw a cat or a boat. They imagine houses that fly in the sky or magical creatures. They show what the monsters hidden under their beds look like. “Drawing sets a child’s imagination in motion,” says Denise Berthiaume, author and former childhood education techniques teacher.

But what if your toddler needs help drawing something—a flower, for example? “Instead of drawing it for her or showing her how, suggest she look at the flowers outside or in a book instead,” recommends Dominique Carreau, early childhood visual arts specialist. She can then draw the flower her way.

When children draw, they call on their creativity : they choose what it is they want to draw and come up with solutions and ideas to do it.

A good way to enhance your child’s creativity is to provide her with a variety of materials : tissue paper, cardboard, coloured paper, felt tip markers, wax crayons, pencil crayons, poster paint, finger paint, and so on. 2-year-old Étienne loves drawing on large pieces of paper placed on an easel, and with chalk on a chalkboard. “He fills the whole board with his designs, then erases it all and starts again,” says mom, Élisabeth. “He can do that for 20 minutes straight.”

What about tablets?

With regard to drawing applications on e-tablets, Dominique Carreau believes they can promote creativity as long as they allow children to draw and not just colour. However, if your child draws on a tablet with her fingers, it doesn’t contribute to developing her fine motor skills. For this, she should use a tablet pen. So tablets should remain one drawing tool among many. Your toddler also needs to be stimulated by handling and using traditional materials such as paper and crayons.

Feeding creativity
Even if elephants don’t have five legs and grass isn’t blue, it’s important to let your child draw however she wishes. “If you tell her that it’s not how one draws something, you risk curbing her creativeness,” observes Denise Berthiaume, author and former childhood education techniques teacher.
Here are a few examples of things you could say to your child to encourage her creativity:
“It was a good idea to use those colours on your truck.”
“What a wonderful idea to put a house on a cloud! You have lots of imagination. That’s awesome!”
“If there were people living in your castle, who would they be?”
“What will your character do tomorrow?”
“I’d like to climb your tree to see what’s around it.”
“Your drawing is very cheerful.”

Drawing revisited

Does your child love drawing, or, on the contrary, is it her least favourite activity? Surprise her with these outside-the-box ideas.

Does your child love drawing, or, on the contrary, is it her least favourite activity? Surprise her with these outside-the-box ideas.

One of the favourite activities of William and his daughters, 4-year-old Claire and 3-year-old Lucie, is creating a collective masterpiece. “Each one of us gets a sheet of paper. Every time I say GO, we trade our sheets and continue where the other person left off. The girls love it!”

Other ideas :

  • Speed drawings. Tie a marker to a toy car and “drive” this car-pen around a large piece of cardboard.
  • Life-size drawings. Using a large roll of paper, trace the outline of your child’s body. Then suggest she draw inside it. You can also use chalk to outline puddles or shadows on the driveway or sidewalk.
  • Water painting. When it’s nice and warm outside, give your child some paintbrushes and a bucket of water to “paint” the balcony, patio or outside walls of the house. It doesn’t leave a mess and the “work” can be continued the next day!
  • Two-step drawings. With a small sponge, paintbrush or your fingers, apply poster paint in spots over a large sheet of paper. Once dry, draw over it with crayons, transforming the spots into little chicks, funny faces, spaceships, and so on.
  • Artistic folding. Crumple a sheet of paper, unfold it and draw along the lines formed in the resulting folds. Ask your child to colour in the shapes created by the spaces between the folds.
  • Musical drawings. With your eyes covered, draw to music. Vary the genres (rock, nursery rhymes, classical, pop, etc.) to see what effect this has on the drawing.
  • Unusual paintbrushes. Objects and elements found in nature can be turned into “paintbrushes”. Simply use a clothespin to hold tree leaves, pine needles, blades of grass, or feathers together. You can also paint with an old toothbrush, cotton wool, pompoms, popsicle sticks and so forth.
  • Family photos. Print family photos and draw over them with a marker : add glasses to dad, a hat to mom, a moustache to little brother, flowers, jewellery, etc.
  • Temporary creations. Draw in a sandbox or at the beach using your feet. You can also get creative with items found in nature : blades of grass, rocks, leaves, flowers, pinecones, small branches, acorns and so on. Outline puddles or shadows on the sidewalk with chalk.
  • Wind painting. Place a drop of poster paint or water coloured with food colouring onto a sheet of paper. Ask your child to use a straw to blow over the drop to spread it out. Once that dries, complete the drawing with crayons.
  • Drawing in action. Make drawing part of an obstacle course or stick sheets on the wall and ask your child to draw standing up.
  • Colour jam. Tie up several coloured crayons together with an elastic band to create a multi-coloured masterpiece.

Be creative! You don’t always need to be sitting at a table to draw.

Thanks to Manon Lavoie, Creativity Coach, M comme Muses.

Are your child's drawings telling you something?

When your toddler draws, he reveals a part of his world. But that doesn’t mean there’s a hidden message in every picture.

When your toddler draws, he reveals a part of his world. But that doesn’t mean there’s a hidden message in every picture.

4-year-old Claire really enjoys drawing her family. She recently drew a picture in which her three-year-old sister was much bigger than her. “I thought it was because her little sister was important to her and she loved her very much,” says mom, Kristell. But what if it were more because Claire would have liked to be little again? After all, at the time she drew the picture, her parents were often telling her to watch out for her younger sister.

Various books and websites explain how to interpret the messages hidden in children’s drawings. However, this information should not be taken too seriously, as it is very general and this is far from an exact science. “Even though a hole in a tree trunk can sometimes be an indicator of trauma, your child may quite simply have wanted to draw a nest for a family of squirrels,” says Pierre Plante, psychologist, art therapist and professor with the Psychology Department at UQÀM.

The same goes for colours. If there’s a lot of black or red in your child’s drawings, you might think this a sign of aggressiveness or anger. But it isn’t always the case. “Colour choice is something far too personal to assign any type of code to it,” says the psychologist and art therapist.

It’s true that psychologists, for example, sometimes use drawing as a therapy tool. “However, one picture isn’t enough to understand what a child is experiencing,” says Pierre Plante. “You need to look at several, since it’s the repetition of certain elements that can provide insight. Furthermore, you cannot read a drawing as though it were a crystal ball. You have to listen to the child and consider the context of their life.”

The interpretation of children’s drawings should be left to specialists.

His advice : listen to what your child tells you about his drawing rather than trying to find a meaning in it. For example, ask him to talk to you about what he drew, without insisting. “This will motivate him to keep drawing,” says the psychologist. The opposite may have him no longer wanting to draw if he feels that each picture is some sort of test.

For children, drawing is first and foremost something fun to do. Of course their drawings tell us something about them. They give us information about what they’re interested in, what they did that day, what they saw, what they find pretty, what they’d like to do, what they’re afraid of, and so forth.

Drawing also helps them express and manage their emotions, whether positive (e.g. making a picture for grandma to express their love) or more negative. Pierre Plante illustrates the point with the story of a four-year-old boy and his new baby sister. “He drew a picture showing his imaginary friend mad at the baby. It was his way of expressing that he was finding it hard to share his place.”

  • Drawing comes naturally to children.
  • In addition to being fun, drawing allows children to develop skills that will serve them later on in school.
  • When you let your child draw what he wants, how he wants, you foster his creativity.


Naître et grandir

Source : Naître et grandir magazine, September 2016
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Josiane Caron Santha, Occupational Therapist


Photos : (in order) iStock.com/Imgorthand, Maxim Morin, iStock.com/Roman Belykh, iStock.com/Georgijevic