Development and the benefits of drawing: 3 to 5 years old

Development and the benefits of drawing: 3 to 5 years old
Drawing helps your child develop creativity and affirm their personality.


Drawing allows for developing the child’s artistic sense and affirms their personality. It is also a way for them to acquire skills to prepare for writing. From age 3, a toddler’s drawings become more and more detailed. Here is a breakdown of their progress.

If your child is under age 3, see our fact sheet Development and the benefits of drawing: 1 to 3 years old.

The development of drawings in 3- to 4-year-old children

At this age, the child’s eye-hand coordination improves. They have increasingly better control of pencils, and can now lift them and put them back in the same place. They begin drawing closed circles, which require good control of their movements. They can also copy already drawn horizontal lines, vertical lines, and circles.

By keeping your child’s drawings and going through them occasionally, you can see how they are progressing.

The child also starts wanting to represent something with their drawings. However, since their drawings are created at random from the features they draw, the toddler recognizes what they drew once the drawing is complete. For example, they might say that they made a bear after finding that their drawing made them think of this animal. The colours they use are also at random.

At this age, it is difficult for anyone other than the child to recognize what their drawing represents. They may even change the description if you show them the same drawing sometime later. Instead of guessing what your child has drawn, ask them to tell you about what they drew on their sheet.

Development of stick figures
Around 3 ½ years old, the child begins drawing stick figures: A circle represents the head, to which they add some eyes. Arms, represented by horizontal lines, are extended from each side of this head. Legs, represented by vertical lines, are attached at the bottom of the head. Gradually, the character becomes more detailed as the child adds a nose, mouth, and eyebrows. Later, hair and ears come into the picture. An estimated 90% of toddlers make this type of drawing.

The development of drawings in 4- to 5-year-old children

At age 4, the child’s drawings are a little more realistic and detailed. It is easier to recognize what a toddler has drawn since their skills have improved. Their drawings are then closer to reality and the objects chosen, even though the proportions are not so accurate yet.

In addition to circles, the child can now draw squares and rectangles. At age 5, they also learn to draw triangles. Their first geometric shapes are often drawn unintentionally. Gradually, they can reproduce them at will. At this age, toddlers also like to reproduce certain shapes or patterns that are recognizable. All of this prepares them to write.

Toddlers draw what is important to them at a larger scale. Thus, some characters are often as big as the houses they draw. Additionally, their heads are often disproportionate to the rest of their body.

The child relies on what they know of an object to reproduce it in their drawings, not on what they actually see. Thus, because they know that a table has four legs, they will draw the table systematically, regardless of its layout.

Similarly, if you ask them to draw their house, they will likely draw what a house represents to them, i.e., a square, a roof (most often sloping), a door, and windows, even if they live in an apartment. There is also transparency in their drawings. If they draw a child sitting in a car, the child’s legs will still be visible. If they draw Mom in the house, she will be fully visible through the walls.

At this age, the child’s drawings do not accurately reflect reality, but they are gradually approaching it. Only around 9 years old will they really be able to draw what they see. They will then rely on observing objects to reproduce them while respecting their specific features.

Development of stick figures
Around age 5, to represent the body, the child adds another circle or a vertical line under the head of their person. They then draw the legs (represented by two parallel lines), the feet, and the fingers (represented by circles or lines, but not necessarily in the right number). They also add details to their person like hair, nose, mouth, neck, shoulders, among other things, but not much in terms of clothing. Only around age 6 will they add clothing to their stick figure. Gradually, the child progresses from drawings with characters represented from the front and standing still, to drawings of people in action and in different positions. They also begin to draw landscapes behind their characters.

How do you encourage your child to draw?

  • Provide them with a variety of materials: Coloured pencils, paint, glue images, glue stick, etc. When you encourage your toddler to create using a variety of materials, you are promoting their interest in drawing. Let your child explore. You must accept that they will use a lot of gouache or glue, the paper will get torn, and everything will be all over the place.
  • Go with your child’s imagination and let them choose their colours. They draw progressively better, but their drawings are still more creative than realistic. Drawing a sun in blue? Flowers that are bigger than trees? This is perfectly normal.
  • Avoid always trying to show them how to draw, for example a flower or tree. This approach can make them less confident in their own abilities. They may then feel inferior in comparison to what adults do. This can limit their creativity and initiative.
  • Use blank sheets. They leave more room for the imagination than a colouring book that makes your toddler follow a model. If you want to teach your child to be more accurate and to not draw outside the lines, it is better to ask them to draw lots of circles and to colour them in. They will in turn learn to control these movements. You can still occasionally offer them colouring books.
  • If they do not know what to draw or how to do it, encourage them to look around and describe their surroundings. The clock on the wall is round. The windows are square. The roof of the house is a triangle. This will help your toddler understand how they can reproduce things in their drawings.
  • If your toddler doesn’t like one of their drawings, encourage them to explain why. Ask them: “What don’t you like about your drawing?” You can also explain to them: “Sometimes our hands don’t work how we want them to, but with practice we can learn how.” By simply explaining reality to your child, you help them learn how to trust themselves and manage their frustration, while developing their self-esteem.
  • Accept that they smear or throw away their work. Up to age 4, the child is not attempting to make something beautiful; they want to play. They simply draw for the enjoyment that it brings. Assembling, disassembling, sticking, unsticking, sticking back: Children love this type of game. This helps strengthen their self-esteem, as they learn to control objects. At age 4, they move on to another stage where they want to create more drawings and keep them. They start displaying them, accumulating them, and giving them as gifts. You will then get full access to an industrial pile of drawings!
  • Suggest different ways of drawing to make this activity even more fun. For example, provide them with a variety of pencils (e.g., felt-tip pencils, wax crayons, window or bath crayons, wooden pencils, chalk, etc.). Also encourage them to draw on different surfaces such as cardboard, blackboards, magnetic drawing boards, the sidewalk, windows, or mirrors.
  • Ask your toddler to make the “the ugliest drawing in the world.” This is a good strategy to encourage a child who does not believe they are good at drawing.

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!
  • Your ideas are very good. I love your drawing. Only you could do this: It’s so original!
  • You added a lot of small details. It’s really nice to look at.
  • Wow! The patterns on your animals and on your character’s clothes; what a great imagination you have!
  • 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 is a step that 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. When drawing, your child also uses 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

  • Your child begins to want to reproduce things they know in drawings, but in very imaginative ways: Their colours and proportions are not necessarily very good.
  • Providing your child with a variety of visual and plastic arts materials stimulates their interest in drawing.
  • When drawing, your toddler develops creativity and skills that prepare them for school.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: January 2020

 

Photos: iStock.com/SE73, gaiamoments, and GettyImages/FreshSplash

 

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.

For parents

  • 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

For children

  • 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.

 

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