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November 2011

Ages & Stages

Scribbling as a Milestone in Your Child's Development

By Robyn Des Roches

When Jill Cameron discovered a wall of crayon scribbles in her 2-year-old son’s room for the fourth time in a single week she knew something more was going on than just driving Mommy bonkers. “It was like an instinct was driving him,” she recalls. “A switch clicked on and he suddenly just had to draw—everywhere!”

Jill was right: scribbling really is an instinct, hard-wired and crucial to human brain development. In fact, the urge to make marks is what sets people apart from all other creatures. A language-based impulse, drawing lays the groundwork for reading, writing and a host of other skills. The freedom of expression encouraged by drawing (as opposed to coloring books or predetermined art projects) provides young children with an exhilarating sense of control and independence and a rare opportunity to rely solely on their own judgment. The more confidence children gain in their facility to transfer the images, ideas and feelings in their heads onto a sheet of paper, the more ease they will have adopting writing for self-expression and communication. While drawing, children hone other cognitive skills, such as thinking creatively, visualizing outcomes, taking risks, solving problems and organizing.  

Just as there are universal and predictable milestones in a child’s acquisition of motor skills, so are there universal stages in learning to draw. Each child reaches these stages in his own time, according to the opportunities he is given for practice and exploration and the pace of her motor development.

Developmental Stages of Drawing

2- to 4-year-olds

Most children begin spontaneously scribbling around age 2, as Jill’s son did on his bedroom wall. At this stage, drawing is closer to physical exercise than art. Lacking fine motor coordination, very young children rely on gross motor strength, swinging the whole arm while clenching the crayon or pencil in a fist. Caught up in the pure kinesthetic pleasure of vigorous movement, they pay little attention to where their marks, which often run off the page or overlap, end up.

Over several months of random scribbling, children become more conscious of cause and effect:  “I move this crayon and it leaves that mark on the paper.” They develop a liking for particular strokes, which they repeat over and over. They are more careful to stay on the paper and avoid drawing over existing marks. Although they now have enough fine motor control to copy a circle crudely, children still enjoy working with vigorous energy and sometimes make noises to accompany their hand movements.

Around age 3, the noises morph into words as children assign names to their scribbles, such as dancing, running or flying. The marks are no longer random scribbles (although they may still appear so to us) but symbols for something in the child’s world that can also be described with a word. The dawning of this connection between symbolic marks and words is a major milestone in linguistic development. Improved fine motor coordination allows many children to grasp a drawing implement with fingers rather than a fist. A greater variety of strokes are placed with deliberate care on the paper and recognizable shapes emerge, particularly circles.

4- to 9-year-olds

Children ages 4 to 7 delight in drawing suns, radials and mandalas (circles divided by interior lines). These shapes gradually become people with arms and legs attached directly to their heads and simply defined hands and facial features. Children become preoccupied with standard patterns for representing common subjects, such as landscapes consisting of a green stripe for ground, a blue stripe for sky and a sun at the top. Perhaps most important, children begin to use their drawings to tell stories and work out problems.

By age 7 or 8, children use geometric shapes to create people, animals and other objects. They may employ X-ray vision when drawing the exterior of a house, so that the interior also is visible. At 9 or 10, they break free of schematic and strive for greater realism, paying more attention to small details and indicating space by overlapping objects or diminishing size to show distance. Prone to compare their peers’ drawings with their own, they often become sensitive and self-critical. Anxious striving for accuracy and conformity continues into the teen years and leads many kids to abandon drawing altogether since it is no longer a spontaneous act of self-expression. Ideally, writing can now serve that purpose.

What Parents Can Do

Because young children draw instinctively, little parental input is needed apart from giving kids independent access to materials, a convenient place to work and adequate time for exploration. Sweeping value judgments (such as, “That’s so pretty—I love it” or ,“The other one was better”) might cause children to view drawing chiefly as a means to gain the parental approval they crave rather than as a conduit for exploring their creativity. Critical comments (“What’s that supposed to be?” or, “Trees should be green” or, “Let me fix it for you”) can undermine the child’s confidence.

Open-ended questions encourage a child to reflect on her work (“How did you decide what color to make the tree?” or “Were you thinking of a special memory when you drew this?”)  If a child has difficulty speaking about his drawing or asks directly for a parent’s opinion, offer descriptive observations that bring his focus back to his process (“Look at all the detail you put into that school bus” or “Those swirly lines look like they were fun to draw.”) Hearing about the drawing’s effect on you is also encouraging (“That sunny sky makes me wish we were at the beach again.”) Above all, a supportive and accepting attitude will help ensure that your child continues to reap the many rewards of drawing for years to come.

Additional  resources

Robyn Des Roches is a museum consultant and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington (