A picture’s worth 1000 lessons

I once did a school project that required me to classify a child at their developmental level by studying their art.

I found a three-year-old, and asked her to draw. Background on the child: her father is an equipment operator.

“This is my dad. And here are the hydraulics,” she said as she scribbled indecipherably yet purposefully. She worked hard, her lines and dots deliberate. What she did, I concluded, constituted the second phase of drawing development.

The first phase is the scribble/exploratory stage. Here children explore the magic of making marks appear on a surface, be it paper, walls or self. The marks are just marks, that is, non-representational.

Following this stage of random scribbling is the stage mentioned above—naming the scribble. The hydraulics aren’t recognizable to anyone but the artist, but for her, those marks bear that meaning.

Typically, the schema/schemata phase comes next. Kids begin to make shapes representing familiar things. Squares might mean houses, circles: people. The pictures might not be representational to the onlooker, but for the child, they’re the graphic words of the stories they’re telling. When children repeat the square = house consistently, they’re using a graphic vocabulary, a precursor of sorts to writing.

A child’s pictures then make the big turn to tadpole figure. Kids will tend to draw themselves and their families, and the tadpole figure emphasizes what’s important to a child—a head, with arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, toes. Interestingly, no torso.

Next, a child starts to place figures in their environments. A green plane will indicate grass, a straight blue line becomes sky. Kids are making their own 2D snapshots of the 3D world.

Then young artists begin to grapple with expressing complexity. I once witnessed a six-year-old labour over a picture of himself until it was perfect. Then he painted the whole page black. “Why?” I asked. He simply said, “It was night.”

Similarly, kids will draw a house, and show the people inside, or even a baby in the mommy’s belly. What they’re doing is trying to represent what they see with what they know and feel. They’re incorporating the knowledge they’ve accumulated, and are trying to represent it in the only written form they have available—pictures.

After these x-ray pictures, children will move on to sequence drawing, mini-stories told graphically rather than snapshots of particular events. By this point, they’ll usually also be literate, and could tell the story through written words. But there’s a freedom of form in illustrating a story that can give children a relieving break from rules of writing.

Why this discussion of kids’ pictures? Fostering a child’s interest in drawing can set their brains up for success. The “simple” action of operating a pencil is a skill that’s built. Forming lines, curves, and later letters, relies on practice and the establishment of muscle memory. Repeating a form consistently is akin to habituating ourselves to sight words. Grappling with multidimensional or sequential concepts within one image shows a brain that’s able to think scientifically and mathematically as it condenses principle concepts in recognizable graphics.

Encouraging children to draw, at any stage, is meaningful not only to their artistic and creative development, but for their capacity to engage in a project, follow it to completion, and feel a sense of worth with the effort and accomplishment. Drawing develops skills of spatial awareness, problem solving and observation. Math, science, creativity, literacy, and self worth. Who knew there could be so much in a picture.

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