The scribbles of very young children have meaning to them, and scribbling actually helps them develop the language skills that lead to reading. Little ones who are encouraged to draw and scribble stories will learn to write more easily, effectively, and confidently once they head off to school.
For very young children, art and early writing skills are one and the same. At first, it’s all about just figuring out what these cool things called crayons can do. Then your child discovers the link between his hand holding the crayon and the line he made on the page: Presto! He experiences the power of cause and effect. Imagine how exciting this must be for him. He can now make a real “mark” on the world. This leap in thinking skills is helped along by his growing control over the muscles in his hands that lets him move a marker or paintbrush with purpose to reach a goal.
There are generally four stages of drawing and writing from 15 months old to 3 years of age. Note that the timetables listed below are approximate; your child may master these skills faster or slower and still be developing just fine. Growth doesn’t happen at the same speed for every child, but by offering repeated fun experiences with a variety of art and writing materials, you will see forward progress over time.
This is the period when young children are just figuring out that their movements result in the lines and scribbles they see on the page. These scribbles are usually the result of large movements from the shoulder, with the crayon or marker held in the child’s fist. There is joy in creating art at all ages, but at this stage especially, many children relish the feedback they are getting from their senses: the way the crayon feels, the smell of the paint, the squishy-ness of the clay. For other children, this sensory information may be too much and they may not enjoy some art activities (like finger-painting). As they grow to tolerate more sensory input, you can incrementally re-introduce these kinds of more tactile art activities into their routine.
As children develop better control over the muscles in their hands and fingers, their scribbles begin to change and become more controlled. Toddlers may make repeated marks on the page —open circles, diagonal, curved, horizontal, or vertical lines. Over time, children make the transition to holding the crayon or marker between their thumb and pointer finger.
Children now understand that writing is made up of lines, curves, and repeated patterns. They try to imitate this in their own writing. So while they may not write actual letters, you may see components of letters in their drawing. These might include lines, dots and curves. This is an exciting time as your toddler realizes that her drawing conveys meaning! For example, she may write something down and then tell you what word it says. This is an important step toward reading and writing.
The ability to hold an image in one’s mind and then represent it on the page is a very important thinking skill that children are mastering at this age. You will see preschoolers creating a picture and then labeling their masterpiece with the names of people, animals, or objects with which they are familiar.
With time, you will see your child clearly planning what he will create before drawing. You will also see more detail in the pictures, more control in the way he handles the crayon or marker, and more colors. What else to be on the lookout for? Children’s first pictures often build off circles. So, you may see a sun—an irregular circle, with lots of stick “rays” shooting out—or a person (usually a circle with roughly recognizable human features).
Once your child has begun to purposefully draw images, he has mastered symbolic thinking. This important milestone in thinking skills means that your child understands that drawings on paper can be a symbol for something else, like a house, a cat, or a person. At this stage, your child also begins to understand the difference between pictures and writing. So you may see him draw a picture and then scribble some “words” underneath to describe what he has drawn or to tell a story.
Make art a regular part of playtime. Offer chunky, easy-to-grip crayons, thick pencils, glue sticks, and washable markers. Cut paper bags up to draw on. Sometimes it helps if you tape the paper down on the table so it doesn’t move as they draw. As your child grows, you can include washable paints, child-safe scissors and glue, and homemade salt-dough as part of your child’s creative time. (For salt-dough recipes, check the Internet or your local library.) Let your child wear an old shirt of yours (with sleeves cut off) as a smock and lay newspaper or an old shower curtain over the table to keep it clean.
Avoid instructions. Let your child experiment and explore. Creativity means being able to express yourself freely. Self-directed activities help your toddler feel confident in expressing his view of the world. By sitting nearby, observing, and taking pleasure in your child’s creation, you are providing all the guidance he needs.
Notice the process, not just the product. Focus less on the outcome and more on what your child is thinking about drawing. Take a few moments to look at and describe what you see in your child’s work: Look at the lines you are making—there are so many of them! Or, I see a purple circle. Or, That picture is full of color. It makes me feel bright and happy. You can also describe what you see as you watch your child create: You are working really hard on your drawing. Or, You seem to be so happy while you do your art. Is that how you are feeling? Another option is simply to engage your child by asking: “Tell me about your picture.”