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Understanding Children's Drawings & Stages of Development

Understanding children's drawing at How we Montessori Otto at 2 years drawing with pencil

I don't want to sound pushy, but I want to check-in to see if you are providing a creative outlet for your children. Are you providing time and space for self expression? It doesn't have to be grand or expensive. It can be as simple as some pencil, paper and a few minutes of uninterrupted time.

Perhaps your children aren't interested? Perhaps your children are already doing lots of crazy exciting creative things! One area of creativity and self expression that I'm particularly interested in is mark making, or drawing. 

"For youngsters aged two to twelve, expressing themselves through art is a very powerful thing. Children use drawing as a visual language - a language of thought that helps them to learn, and one that continually evolves as they grow. Children's art offers clues to what they like and dislike, what they fear and what they desire and, most importantly, what they value and what they understand or have accomplished. Their drawings are serious attempts to give form to their environment, express something about it, and present it in a way that is truly meaningful. Their art reveals how they see, think and feel at that very moment in time. Fortunately, parents can learn much about their children just by looking at their drawings and watching them as they work. " - Children Draw: A Guide to Why, When and How Children Make Art by Marilyn JS Goodman.

Understanding children's drawing at How we Montessori Otto at 2 years drawing with pencil

But what is a two year old drawing? The developmental stages of children's drawings in Understanding Children's Drawings by Cathy Malchiodi include:

  1. Scribbling (1.5 to 3+ years)
  2. Basic Forms (3+ to 4+ years)
  3. Human Forms and Beginning Schemata (4-6 years)
  4. Development of Visual Schema (6-9 years)
  5. Realism (9-12 years)
  6. Adolescence (13-17 years). 

For my toddler I'm interested in the Scribbling Stage. The Scribbling Stage, sometimes referred to as the 'Manipulative' or 'Organic' Stage can been subdivided into:

  1. Disordered Scribbling (18-24 months+) - equates with Piaget's Sensorimotor stage (0-2yrs), marks made by movement from shoulders by swinging the whole arm rhythmically, often repeatedly, in large gestures. Child is focused on their own motor activity and enjoyment of the movement. Child pays little attention to borders and edges of the paper and will often scribble beyond the edges of the page. May not even look at the page while drawing as they are concentrating on the movement. Large paper/drawing surfaces are important. 
  2. Controlled Scribbling - this stage occurs when the child notices a relationship between the movements of the arm and the marks on the paper. The child may look at the scribble as they draw. The child may experiment more with lines and colour. Begin to make loops, circles, lines and whirls. Marks become more refined and  deliberate. Marks become smaller and may be repeated, with lots of sprinklings or clusters of dots. Marks may resemble forms of writing like adult signatures!
  3. Named Scribbling - child may try to stay within the boundaries of the paper, may place more attention to the placement and arrangement of the marks, perhaps drawing more in one area of the paper. May signify a shift from kinaesthetic thinking to imaginative thinking and equates with the Piaget's Preoperational Stage (2-7yrs) where children begin to use symbolic play, use language (words and images) to refer to objects (including naming things). With symbolic thought children can classify their environment with line, form, size and colour. Children may express personality and disposition (dramatic, reserved) though their drawings. 

I can recognise so much of this! In the Scribbling Stage "Being allowed to draw freely, with the power to choose colours and exercise other individual preferences, contributes to the child's growing sense of autonomy, which is important to his/her emotional growth" - Children Draw: A Guide to Why, When and How Children Make Art by Marilyn JS Goodman. Children Draw: A Guide to Why, When and How Children Make Art is a good source of information if you want to read ahead or if you have older children and want to explore the other stages. For those waiting to see their children draw people, I believe that happens at or around 3-4yrs.  

Early stages of mark making at tes (2)

Stages of Early Mark Making image via tes

This is not a time to be worried about pencil grip. It is important to note that other activities using fine motor skills (using scissors, puzzles, play dough and clay) can greatly contribute to hand strength and developing pencil grip.

Otto (at 2.5 years) is using the pictured above Cylindrical Grasp, I've also seen it called the Palmar-supinate Grasp, where the child's palm in contact with the writing utensil and their thumb is uppermost. Using this grasp most movement is large and is initiated from the shoulder, however Otto is also making lots of smaller marks (like his little circles) that come from movement in his wrist. I can see his is making a combination of large and small movements and marks.

Understanding children's drawing at How we Montessori Otto at 2 years drawing with pencil

"Daddy's Car" - this is a clear indication of what is important and going on in my toddler's life. My husband going to work in his car is an important part of the day. 

How we Montessori child's drawings at 2.5 years drawing circles

This drawing is typical of how my toddler is drawing right now, a contrast of large movements and smaller, refined movements and he is mostly staying on the page. Just in the last two or so weeks, Otto (2.5yrs) has been drawing circles, very deliberately making sure the circle is complete and enclosed. "One of the most important points in the development of children's drawing is reached when children discover they can now transform a line into an enclosed shape. That first enclosed shape, usually a circle, has been described as the child's preliminary attempt at making a realistic drawing." - Children Draw: A Guide to Why, When and How Children Make Art . The circle is a universal symbol that can represent almost anything and also relates to Piaget's theory of increased symbolic thought, the child is making their first symbol or first conscious representational attempt. 

How we Montessori child's drawings at 2.5 years drawing circles

This drawing looks fierce and full of energy! Most of this mark making was done using two hands at once, an orange pencil in the left hand and a red pencil in the right hand. Lots of fast circles. You can also see a deliberate attempt to stay on the paper. 

Resource we use:

  • A2 or A3 Landscape Sketch Books - I find these work well for us, we can take them outside, move them around the house and make sure we use the back of the paper without lots of loose paper flying around.
  • STABILO Woody 3-in-1 Pencils and Lyra Groove Triple 3 in 1 Color Pencils - I've found both of these pencil sets extremely washable, Otto draws on the table and walls and I've always been able to wipe them clean. Keep in mind you will need a large pencil sharper, while these can be expensive (more than the pencils) our has lasted, we use a Lyra Groove Sharpener (UK link). We also use oil pastels, paint sticks and during this pandemic stay-at-home period we are also using a lot of jumbo chalk for drawing on our paved driveway.

For a summary on Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development I reference this article.  

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