Should children be shown what to do… or be given the time to explore?
This question, summed up by Suzanne Axelsson after a live meeting of the “Grammar of Drawing” group, implies a reflection about the role of the educator before and during the creative process of a child. Bringing it to excess, we could consider it as the opposition of two sides: total freedom vs structured guiding – even if neither exists in an absolute sense (there will always be a tiny percentual of freedom and personal variation even in the strictest guided process, as well as there will always be some kind of limits even in the freest context).
In fact, it is not about choosing the right or wrong side, totally excluding one or another. What interests us is the “positioning” of the educator according to each specific context and child: what actions and words can better support a meaningful, independent and involving process of playing and creating?
I think that, first, we should consider if children asked us to show them something. If so, why do you think they did and what did they precisely ask? How to use a tool or a technique or what to do, what to draw? These are very different questions that imply different needs and approaches.
For example, if a child asks us to show how to use scissors, why shouldn’t we? Another case: what if a child is stuck with using scissors but does not ask? I would just say: “I see you want to cut some paper. Would you like me to show how I do that?” And I would show only if she gladly accepts my offer.
A completely different situation is when a child asks us how to draw – for example a cow or a horse or whatever. There can be many reasons for this request. Maybe, the child is dealing with the realistic phase of the drawing development, so is genuinely interested in this kind of research. Or he could be afraid of adults’ expectations within a competitive classroom. Thus, the knowledge of drawing development (by Lowenfeld) can assist us as a compass for contextualize the child’s request.
While working as an atelierista, I remember a group of children making the portrait of some peers in a yoga position. The teacher entered and noticed that a child was drawing even some parts of his friend’s body that he could not see (because those parts were hidden from his point of view). The teacher insistently suggested to the child to look with more attention and to compare what he was drawing with what he was seeing. But the aim and the interest of the child were not about a realistic representation!
As adults, we always tend to consider the “visual realism” as a goal itself, while it is just one of many developmental stages, that will come with its time (usually after the preschool period). So we should ask ourselves: why am I suggesting or showing that?
Now, let’s think of another kind of request: what about a child asking what to draw? As Nona Orbach wrote in her post “Two stories: what should I create now?”, it means that she hasn’t an inner motivation and looks somewhere outside for it. Or maybe, she is just looking for the permission to draw whatever she wants.
And what about children that never ask for your support? How do you face with your role of educator? Do you feel useless? Are you tempted to show something or to speak about something, even if children are not asking? Why? Do you think your intervention is “silently” needed? Did the child seem stuck or bored to you? Can you “endure” when children say: “I’m bored?”
Try to really answer, they are not obvious questions.
Finally, we should also consider our approach as adults when switching “on the other side”, for example while attending a training course: what do we expect from our educators? Have you got an active researcher approach or do you expect the right, ready-made solution?
The way of being “student” is connected to the way of being “teacher” or “educator”. Investigating our inner student-child will help us to better understand our way of supporting a child, and the reason for our choices.
Cover drawing by Arianna, 5 years old – “Le Betulle” preschool, Cavriago (Italy)
This post is written as part of the project Grammar of Drawing and as a reply to this issue emerged in an online discussion.
by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci
It feels like we have come full circle – the three of us, Suzanne, Nona and Roberta had been speakers at Teacher Tom’s 2021 Summer Summit and afterwards started the Grammar of Drawing as a way to keep the momentum of the energy we experienced there going. In late spring we met to talk about what we would talk about in our interview with Tom for the 2022 Summer Play Summit. We started with what felt the most important with the Grammar of Drawing project. As we talked Suzanne took notes, jotting down words to help us remember our discussion and to see what would surface. Towards the end of the dialogue as Suzanne went through the notes there were four words that we had focussed the most on.
And this is what our dialogue with Tom ended up being about as we feel these four words breathe life into this project of ours, and in how we interact with children.
In English all these words begin with P, which appeals to our sense of play, but it is not so much the play on how the words begin, but the very essence of these words that oxygenates our approach.The product-process dichotomy is not just two sides of a coin where it is either one or the other, they are both a part of the same experience (and a coin does not only have two sides, but also an edge, and mass between them). We all agree that creating the actual product is important, but we also acknowledge that the process is of equal value. The balance between these two words is constantly dancing, both taking turns to lead the direction of the aesthetic experience.
Problems (another word beginning with P!) arise when one or the other is given more power by outside forces. For example, that the school system prioritises the product rather than the process, in other words, that the learning process is less important than the product/proof (that is often a test score, or, in art subjects, a specific artwork made in a specific way to prove a specific ability or knowledge). This is a kind of art that kills creativity, joy and playfulness. Children and students do not have permission to explore their own interests and own possibilities with the materials and techniques shared with them.
Equally, when all the focus is on the process and not creating products then it can feel aimless, or maybe that sense of pride in one’s own achievements is lost. Products can be individual and collective, and both have an important role. We think it is vital to consider that the process can also be standardised, limited and controlled and not just for the sake of a specific product, but also because of time, fear of mess, or expectation of what “process” is (including misconceptions) and that just because a teacher is focussing on the process does not necessarily mean the child has freedom to explore.
We are not at all keen on the whole process vs product art discourse that is rampant in social media. We think that Play and Permission are much more important words than product and process and we think we should all be shifting our thinking more in this direction.
How can children play with materials to understand their processes, to see the multiple products they can create and what permission are they given to play freely? As Nona says, where is the threshold? Where adults begin to say no, where their instincts retract the permission and children experience a new word beginning with P – prevention! They are prevented from certain experiences, certain opportunities, from making certain stuff. There can be good, well-reflected reasons for some of these threshold stops, but quite often they are based in bias, fear and a lack of time for educators to reflect deeply about the three I’s that Suzanne talks about – Interaction, Intervention and Interference.
These three words will help us find a balance in product, process, play and permission:
we interact with the child with an attitude of permission,
we intervene only to support the flow of the play and the process, and
we interfere as little as humanly possible so the product of the play/process is not destroyed or negatively disturbed.
The product might be a physical item the child was intending to make, or would accidentally create/discover through their play, or can be knowledge or meaning/sense-making, and our interference would result in the child never discovering or creating it.Play and Permission are about freedom. The freedom to explore. The freedom to discover. The freedom to create. The freedom to act. Permission is an act of love, as we must fully understand the abilities, capabilities, interests and well-being of a child to know how to keep them safe as necessary (by not permitting dangerous actions, tools, experiences that the child is not ready for) while offering space for a child to make mistakes they can learn from.
A phenomenological observation in search of the blueprint.
Looking at a short video a few times can help us notice more and more details about the creator. We can try to write down actions and verbs: what are they doing?
2.6 toddler is holding a pencil sharpener in his left hand. A plastic container with pencil leftovers is on the table between his body and the notebook. I suggested putting the sharpener and container aside so he’s more comfortable drawing.
He did not want to.
I immediately learned my lesson! He needed to hold the sharpener because it was as important to him as the pencil! For adults, a sharpener is a temporary tool alongside drawing – for him, it is as important as the pencil. We will soon learn why.
In the video, we join him in the middle of a scribble.
What do we see?
Here is a simple list of actions accumulated while watching the video a few times.
The right hand thinks – works slowly, drawing a shape within a shape.
He tries to close a form with light pressure.
He fills the space he created.
He makes another sign next to it.
He fills the gap between them with more intensity with the crayon.
He enlarges the space he colours.
The notebook slides.
Thus, now he needs the help of his left hand to stabilise it.
He is pulling his right hand away and probably observing.
What do you see? Did I miss something?
How is this connected to his blueprint?
If you read this post, you will notice how interested he is in HOW THINGS WORK and how the world is made. He loves tools! Thus, learning to use the large red sharpener made him joyful – this is probably the reason why he had to hold it.
My grandchildren like to come to the studio and create. They choose what and where to work: sand tray, painting wall, large table. I am observing them or working in another corner of the studio. They are independent, and each one has personal handwriting and interests, and they respect and like each other’s work although they are different.
The eldest loves to mix and smear colors and is diligent and forceful in filling up pages of gouache paint.
He is a colorist child.
Coloristic children are interested in actions; They mix sensually, blend stuff, create mess and rhythms. Sometimes such processes develop into ornamentations, decorations, and patterning.
In every class, there are a few of them. Nevertheless, unlike most children, they are less concerned about creating images such as a house or a person.
This cognitive quality develops outside their paper!
These children sometimes find art time more difficult in kindergartens and schools – because they are not drawing images according to what society expects them to.
Kindergarten teachers and art teachers are often a bit bewildered in the face of this phenomenon.
Thus, the children who paint images will be granted compliments from the kindergarten teacher and grandparents [Look, he painted a man!], while the colorists will be treated as having drawn a silly scribble. Ironically, they might call him Piccaso. The child is compared to his friends and siblings. And they sadly feel and notice it.
One afternoon this coloristic boy said to me:
Yael said that my painting was ugly because I was painting over the lines.
He said they all were given printed pages to fill with crayons.
What did you say to her?
I didn’t say anything.
He was quiet and sad.
How old is Yael?
Four years old.
Is she a painting teacher like Grandma?
So in the meantime, she knows what she knows, and I will explain to you something that you can share with her and the children in kindergarten: every child is unique, and each one paints in their favorite way. And there are also all kinds of forms of painting. Otherwise, if we were all the same, there would be no museums and exhibitions.
For example, some paintings are called “abstract paintings.” They have shapes, colors, dots, and lines but no horse, flower, or house. These are mixtures like you like to do. Your grandmother paints like that, too, and her work was even in an exhibition in a museum.
Tell Yael that you don’t have to be inside the lines if you don’t want to. Every boy and girl is the queen or king of their paper, and they decide.
Like your cousin, Yael loves to paint inside the lines, and it is wonderful – but you can do what you choose to do on your paper. There is no one painting rule for everyone.
On my next visit, he said that Yael from kindergarten also started covering lines in colors even though she was usually inside the lines.
He is 12 years old these days. Since he was a toddler, he was very interested in cooking, and he is also playing the drums.
Collections of rhythms in paintings and music, cutting, chopping, stirring in the kitchen make a metaphorical sense that leads to his spiritual blueprint traits.
For coloristic children, the material, the sensual experiences are the heart of the process. If you know such a child, they need that reinforcement in the school system that does not respect this way of expression.
Messy art can be about lots of tiny paper bits, or clay, or any materials that require work to clean up afterwards – spilled water, stains etc. How we view the clean up process is going to impact what kind of freedoms we offer children. How children are included in these processes is also going to impact how the children engage in the materials.
I once had a child that, when in the care of the closing teacher, spent time alone in a room with the sensory table filled with out of date dried lentils. He thoroughly enjoyed himself by spreading the lentils everywhere. I have images in my head of him tossing them like fairy dust, dancing and enjoying it. The next day I came to the room and it was covered in a thin layer of lentils… from the floor to the highest shelf. It was impressive. And crunchy underfoot.
I breathed. It was moments away from our morning gathering where we would eat fruit and talk about our day. Calmly I found out from the teacher what had happened, and their obvious dislike of the “messy sensory table” and their decision to “teach me a lesson” by leaving the mess rather than tidying it up, or letting me know. I then went to the child in question. I simply said “it looks like you had a lot of fun yesterday, but today I need you to come and help me tidy up your fun so we can all meet”. We cleaned up together, his peers and friends came to help too. I asked if he had enjoyed the process, which he shook his head to – which surprised me, because the effectiveness of the whole-room lentil-covering indicated otherwise, so I wondered how the other teacher had reacted and whether this had made the child feel ashamed of what must have been experienced as joy..
I was not the slightest bit angry or frustrated with the child. This child was playing and learning. The child also learned, by being involved in tidying-up as an act of responsibility rather than as a punishment, to make smaller messes in the future… or as I suggested, make big ones with natural materials outside that don’t need cleaning up – like tossing autumn leaves around.
This is why it is so important to include the children. They have the right to make a mess, but they also have responsibilities – responsibilities should always be in tune with the child’s capacity and maturity.
Here are a few messy art ideas that are both small and large that can help you reflect on the possibilities. I have worked at settings where I was not allowed to make messes on the floor, even in the atelier, and have found ways to overcome that with shower curtains or sheets etc on the floor so that children did not feel limited by my anxiety over getting into trouble with mess.
Mess with coloured water. (I used the inside of dried pens to colour the water) Using a tray to minimise the spread of the mess and wetness.
Allowing the mess also allows for new discoveries… for example, paint doesn’t just make marks when you paint on, but also when you scrape off.
Some messy activities, like flicking paint on a toothbrush, can be enjoyed by placing the paper inside a cardboard box on it’s side to allow flicking in multiple directions while minimising just how much of the classroom becomes speckled.
Sometimes together, sometimes alone. Finding multiple ways to fully explore and enjoy. If I don’t have a sink close by, then I will often have a large bowl/bucket/box of soapy water and towels for the children to clean up in instead of leaving paint trails between the studio and the sinks.
“Clean” messy art… using a metal ball and magnet to enable a messy kind of art that doesn’t result in being messy. Prints were made to capture the work. This works well with children who are mess averse. I am always looking for ways to create inclusive environments for all children – both those children who need lots of sensory input and where getting messy meets that need, and children who are easily overwhelmed and messiness can create anxiety.
Full body painting has been a consistent favourite over the years… and I have done this in multiple ways both inside and outside. I always have dialogues with the children’s parents about clothes, mess, expectations and cleaning up. I once worked with a fair haired child that smeared blue paint into his hair and stained it green for several washes – much to his parents’ horror and amusement. Just as I have picked up my own children after a day in the forest stained with blueberry juice all over their face because they had “made” make-up. That moment of horror is soon overcome by amusement (and the awareness that everyone on the underground train would be staring at my purple faced twins grinning from ear to ear).
Simply put. We have to get comfortable with the mess. It is going to happen. How big depends on your attitude. It’s not a simple “more mess more fun” ratio… It is about the freedom to explore the materials, and sometimes that can make a mess, but not always – and one child’s freedom can limit another child – so finding balance in the freedom and the mess is what we need to be reflecting on.
This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawingby Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.
Over the years I have seen the benefits of getting messy while exploring with art materials (or really anything). Equally I have seen great numbers of mess averse educators, and owners of schools and preschools that result in limiting children’s ability to play with art materials.
Giving permission to young children (or children of all ages) to fully explore and play means reconciling with mess. The mess is often sensory rich, knowledge rich, socially rich, emotionally rich and eliminating it from the early years and schools is counter productive.
Yes, it does require more work to clean up, but I have frequently found that children also enjoy the cleaning up process, even if it does often make the clean up process take longer – so much learning occurs there. As Roberta has mentioned before, mark making is not just the adding of materials, it is also the removal… and wiping paint off a table or a floor opens up new opportunities to be creative and discover. Cleaning brushes and pots equally so… I have yet to experience a child who does not start playing with filling a paint stained pot and start to marvel at the transformations, and sometimes starts “cooking” with the brushes, water and pots, or making magic potions. Long shared sinks are the absolute best for this.
When I have planned for a full sensory experience I plan ahead – how will the children clean themselves – is the sink close by, do I have access to a shower, or should I fill a BIG tub/box of water so the children can clean themselves close by? There are big plastic boxes that work great as makeshift children cleaners, and they have become an exciting part of the whole process. I have towels and everything close by – the children’s clothes are in neat piles ready to put on again.
Everything is set up to minimise problematic transitions, which I know many children can struggle with. And yes, it can be hard work. Yes, I get quite sweaty as it’s intense. But the rewards far outweigh all of this.
I have been lucky, I have had a shower in the atelier or close by in several settings I have worked at which has meant cleaning children easy.
At the end of every year, the last session in the atelier is the children’s choice. We plan a few weeks ahead what it is they want to do as a group so that I can ensure that we have all the materials we need. Every single year that I have done this – and it is many years – the children have chosen a messy, paint with the whole body experience. Often that last one we play, paint, explore until the paper has disintegrated. Often I recycle, from a sustainability point of view, but this last one they learn about saturation, about the impacts of their moving bodies on wet paper etc.
But the joy.
Not only the joy, the dialogues that start as they observe the different qualities of wetness, and how the colours mix, and how they interact with each other, and how it leaves marks on themselves.
There is so much space for the children to learn about consent. Am I allowed to touch someone else and leave traces on them? Do I have the right to say no to someone else, and do I have the strength to say that when I discover I do?
Not all messy art is collective.
It can be small, as children take their brushes and start to paint themselves instead of the paper, and feel the bristles and the coolness of the paint against their skin. Forgetting their paper and what they “were supposed to be doing” and focussing on the delicious sensations of hands and arms transforming.
Although not all children like to get messy. As a mother I have two children who loved to fully experience paint, food or whatever they could make a mess with, and one child who was mess adverse and it became a traumatic experience that would end up in tears and desperation to be clean again. Planning for mess that can include all children is also important so that there is freedom for all the children to artistically explore. And that can simply be provided for. Either using utensils when others are using hands, or using gloves or laying a piece of plastic bag over the top of paint for them to spread it around. Taking the time to understand how the activity will be experienced by all the children can make it less emotionally messy.
Some places I have worked at have had strict rules about getting floors and walls and furnishings messy and I had to be creative in my thinking about how can I make this kind of freedom with art materials be available to the children without causing problems for myself.
I have spread out old sheets, or shower curtains etc on floors to protect them from spills so that I did not have to hover over the children to ensure they painted “sensibly”. Making sure children had access to cleaning facilities was important. Sometimes designs are not perfect and the sinks have been placed in another room from where we paint, and there is that risk of letting a child go themselves to clean up, possibly leaving a trail on the way – or leaving the group to fend for themselves for a few minutes… unless I am dictating when everyone can leave, and that just doesn’t sit well with me. I find having a bucket of water and a towel with me in the water free art room can be of service to get the worst off, and then allow the child to wash off the rest.
I am also choosing art materials that will easily wash out, or wipe off too – so that the children can maximise the experience. So my adult choices within my context are crucial – they can make the difference between the children being able to have greater or lesser freedom in their art explorations.
Parents are another barrier sometimes, and having dialogues about the benefits of messy art and exploration I have found is very useful, as well as letting them know which days we are playing with art materials and that they should send their children in clothes that are OK to get messy. I have even put clothes into the school washing machine when I know that families struggle with having enough clothes or access to laundry facilities.
My own children had special paint clothes when they were preschoolers so that they could freely explore when doing art without any anxiety for getting their clothes messy (the idea was they could wipe their paint covered hands on their clothes) and so that aprons etc did not get in the way of their creativity – some of these plastic aprons can limit movement, or sound or smell strange which can be off-putting for some children. Children with anxiety for mess, sometimes because they are afraid of what their parents will say, and some because they do not like being messy themselves all need to be met with genuine respect so that they can be helped through the anxiety so they can experience creative joy. Dialogues with parents, protective layers, or extra clothes to change into can all be of help.
In the mess there is maths, there is writing, there is joy, there are social interactions, knowledge-building. It is so much more than just a mess. There is also that freedom that we have been referring to in our writings about scribbles. This messy freedom is not always accessible in every child’s home, so providing for it in preschools, kindergartens and schools is technically a necessity. The next post will take a closer look at what messy art is.
This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawingby Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.
It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
Often I feel this statement by Picasso is misinterpreted. It is not so much that Picasso wanted to paint like a child but that he desired the freedom from normative expectations that very young children have. A short period of time when children are not drawing houses as squares with triangular roofs and a chimney regardless of whether such houses can be found in their context, or paint/draw water as blue squiggles despite water seldom looking blue, unless you have spent most of your life at the swimming pool (and then, technically, it is the blue tiles).
I am constantly striving to decolonise my way of thinking, learning and teaching and maybe this statement sort of fits in with that? Decolonise is a word that is getting used more often and refers to when white Europeans went around the world conquering lands to gain control over the materials available there, and wiping our resistance by in part violence and in part suppressing local cultures by forcing their own on to them. The colonies brings up thoughts of islands in the pacific – but it was/is also North and South America, Australasia, parts of Asia, much of Africa and since the days of the Crusades the Middle East also. There is a TEDTalk that I can highly recommend that you watch – The Danger of a Single Storyby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that describes the problems that comes when a white, Western, usually male, able, heterosexual etc normative thinking is seen as the only correct way to think, or worse still, that people have totally failed that there are any other ways to think.
I am also conflicted at the use of a Picasso quote when talking about decolonising (opening up to other truths, stories and possibilities) when his art benefited from colonial structures that elevated his interpretation of Indigenous aesthetic expression – see Liisa-Ravna Finbog’s poston this) In other words how he depicted others was often exotifying them or stereotyping them, which benefited him financially without addressing the truth of the people and places he depicted.
As part of being able to see drawing as an act of democracy, we need to start thinking about the effects of culture on world-views, and world-views have on culture. Basically, what general beliefs of what the world actually is influencing the details we notice, the stories we listen to. Are we drawing stereotypes, prejudice or the truth?
Young children, of course, have not been exposed and subjected to years of cultural impressions. There is a freedom to experience the world as it is rather than the “story” of our societies. As adults, and especially as parents and teachers, we need to busy ourselves with unlearning many of these “truths” we have learned as a process of creating genuine equity, where real participation for everyone and authentic impact and influence by all is achievable – in order to create a real democracy. This means listening to all the stories rather than just the one normative story, so that we can allow the children we work with the freedom to be who they are and to value others.
So, what if Picasso meant – that to paint like a child actually meant unlearning the truths told in order to listen and learn from all the stories? That painting like a child is to be free of restriction. I can compare this to the normative flower symbol – a circle with five petals. So many children learn to draw this – yet so many flowers are completely different – tulips, dandelions, iris, orchids, sunflowers, roses, daisies etc etc etc – imagine a world where you are belittled and made to feel less worthy just because you are not a flower that is a circle with five petals – decolonising our thinking is giving us the freedom to draw every kind of flower and not just that one template.
And what can we learn from this, so that art can be a part of our democratic approach to teaching and being with children?
Cultural norms have the power to infect the way children see and hear the world. Bit by bit their eyes are clouded and their ears are muffled so that the multiplicity and details of our complex world are blurred so that soon the child is blinkered into making artistic, creative and cognitive decisions based on general understandings filtered to them rather than real-life observations.
Norms and culture are an important part of feeling a sense of belonging. I have no intention of saying we should abandon these, merely to, as educators and parents, not place blinkers on children, as well as providing strategies for children to notice the whole world around them. Norms are what tell us to respect each other, to help, to not hit others, to say thank you, that inform us murder is bad and teaching is positive – these are essential in our social well being together. The problem arises when these norms exclude others, belittle others – the norm that children are empty vessels that need to be filled with information by wise adults is something many of us have been challenging, the norm that women are less able than men is an ongoing struggle where some countries have come further in gender equality than others…
As you see norms are essential, good, restrictive and sometimes harmful.
Another norm in our shared world is to not waste time, and things like play, and aesthetic expression often get categorised as a waste of time. So over the years there has been a drive to prove that they are not… but sadly even in art there is the language of “hurry up” and “get to the next stage”, which turns art and play into tools to level up, teachers and parents anxious for their child to stop babbling and start talking, stop crawling and start walking and stop scribbling and start drawing forms the adults recognise. This means that suddenly things like drawing (where scribbling is an essential process) have little value in their own right, but only as a step to writing or some other academic achievement that is not seen as a waste of time.
The result is the manipulation of art, drawing, scribbling and play… in order to produce a desired outcome. Which defeats the whole purpose of art and play and their massive complexity. Debi Keyte-Hartland writes in Drawing as Meaning-making about this complexity of knowing materials, self and the world – as a language that is social, relational and also generative… in other words, it is about interacting with others during the process and after the process, it is about understanding the interconnectedness and interdependencies, as well as a language for creating knowledge and sharing it. This is so much more than simply seeing scribbles as a precursor to writing and only encouraging that narrative…. It is seeing scribbles as relationships.
Drawing as an act of democracy requires educators, and parents, to be open to the multiple possibilities of what the process provides, shares and enables. It requires us to be aware of our own bias and prejudices as well as educational and other agendas, so that they are not limiting or blurring the child’s ability to see the world as it is, and avoid force feeding children what normative society says they should be (especially when the norm excludes, oppresses and harms others). I am grateful that dialogue is opening up about autism, and slowly, slowly the normative view of the autistic child viewed as a problem and as being less than is finally changing to one of complexity, creativity and seeing the child with a different learning trajectory that is frequently damaged by a society trying to make them catch up or be “as normal as possible”.
Slowing down, looking closely and listening deeply can be applied to drawing. It is something that we should practice every day ourselves, so that we know how we can provide it for the children in our care.
Take notice of the world around us as itis. Listen to all the stories. Allow art to be a space to explore what we see and hear to make sense of it, and to share that with others.
When it comes to the first part of the statement by Picasso “it took me years to paint like Raphael”… it certainly implies that as a creative artist he spent years copying others. He was clearly using Raphael as a template – to learn techniques, to practice something over and over again to feel a sense of mastery. Not to paint like Raphael but, I assume, to better understand how Raphael painted. Learn by doing, do by knowing… Picasso was able to do what he did because he knew, because he had physically practiced. He had “played” Raphael.
All of this is at the core of drawing as an act of democracy. A space for all stories to be shared, expressed, discovered. A space and process that is permitted time, and not kept to the normative agenda to reach a specific outcome rather than the freedom to reveal its own truth. A space for scribbles to tell their valuable tale for as long as they need to be told, without being hurried by the norm to get to the next, allegedly more valuable, stage that is linear and never allowed to revisit. Let’s decolonise the scribble!
This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawingby Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.
Toddlers and young children learn about the world through their bodies; they explore through the senses and are motivated by the urge to discover motor, sensory and emotional pleasure. They do it with joy and imagination. The signs they leave in the food that is smeared, in the sand on the beach, a line on the house wall, or on paper are manifestations of natural and curious learning. The toddler experiences cause and effect, creativity, and the joy of discovering primary form structures and materials. The brain and body work mutually and learn. Thus random signs gradually and naturally become increasingly directed scribbles, shapes, and complex drawings. Toddlers and young children all over the world explore lines and points, shapes, and movements. And they will create compositions on paper, and thus, they study the world and express themselves cognitively and emotionally.
Victor Lowenfeld, Rhoda Kellogg, Sylvia Fein, and others researched the developing stages of scribbles and drawing from toddlers’ first reactions to adolescents. They discovered the natural characterizations and stages of this brain-physical process. It evolves through play and accumulating experience. The scribble stages are very important because the toddler begins to express and understand the cognitive, human, and universal forms during this time. There’s no need to teach it, and it’s even harmful. It happens on its own similar to the way we learn to sit and walk. Children who naturally go through the process will develop independence and a sense of value.
The drawing of a four-year-old boy and the 3500-year rock carvings from Switzerland is based on the same mandala archetype we have all owned since the beginning of humanity. The process of any child is based on this rich heritage. Upon that, each child will develop their personal dictionary, which I title The Spiritual Blueprint.
It is a profoundly astonishing phenomenon that all children of the world, in all cultures, undergo the same natural and universal process in its stages: from leaving random signs to creating intentional lines, points, spirals, and compositions. Moreover, they will also discover and invent the three basic forms present in all human civilizations! Every child will discover and produce in their own time, naturally – a circle, square, and triangle.
There are fundamental differences between a toddler creating than an adult. The need to scribble in toddlers and children is related to physical pleasure and discoveries since the world was created.
And unlike us adults – children know nothing yet about art history and do not mean to create conscious dialogues and artistic connections. They are still in the discovery phase.
Nor do they necessarily try to communicate with others through scribbles. A child may look at a friend’s painting next to him at the table and imitate it, or he will draw something for his mother to make her happy – but that is not the main meaning of this activity. The main function is to learn about the world at their own pace according to their personality, experimenting intimately with materials and working with other substances.
A child needs permission to be themself. Our reactions to scribbles and drawings should be similar in engagement and quantity as we respond to the Lego game or the dolls. It is enough for the mother or kindergarten teacher to smile and say: I see you concentrate and enjoy what you do.
Over-involvement of adults in the scribble stages
My impression over the years is that there are too many interventions in kindergartens and homes – around scribbles and paintings. Adults are much more involved in drawing and scribbling tables than in block building or doll games, where we usually let them play as they please. We may observe relationships and other matters, but this is not like the intense preoccupation around scribbling and painting. Too often, next to a scribbling child, an adult is seen demonstrating, talking, and asking, for example: What is this? What did you draw? Name the painting. Or they are praising some graphic form reminiscent of an image. And if they say it to the child, they might please others by creating another human figure or a cat instead of exploring their own process.
For some reason, we become restless next to papers, colors, and pencils.
Several reasons for interventions in children’s drawings
1. Cultural conditioning: We are fascinated by marks on paper that represent images or something in reality
Many adults do not acknowledge the meaning of scribbles and therefore see them as coincidental or unintentional. They might think it’s preparation for something else and not a thing in itself. As mentioned above, we are fascinated by marks on paper that represent images, and therefore as adults, we aspire to create and understand images.
The moment a toddler points to several lines and says: “Dad!” – is an exciting family moment. This baby, in a word, made it clear to us that they connected a scribble to an image and even named it.
Creating an image and verbal meaning in a competitive Western society is perceived as high cognition.
The cultural conditioning that images and words are important – creates the urge to expedite the children to get “there.”
That is what motivates us to rush a child who started to close a shape to draw “a person,” even if they didn’t mean it yet.
From this impulse, we accelerate by demonstrations, too many praises, and suggestions.
2. The artistic medium, by nature, contains a physical product that remains after the play process has finished.
Block-building, playing with dolls etc, once the imaginary play is over there is no physical outcome/product.
However, the scribbling actions leave a physical product that is a new object in the world. Somehow, this immediately creates a judgmental comparison of abilities and cognition of one child to all other children’s drawings in their kindergarten or their siblings. There is a secret graph of progress and comparison in our minds.
Doll playing does not evoke such harsh reactions from us.
Moreover, sometimes a child will be complimented by comparison to an artist: “They are a Picasso!”
Perhaps because it is an object of the same type, we compare a child to an artist, even though their starting point is completely different?
As a result, unconsciously, adults will try to expedite their work towards a more understandable figurative painting in terms of content.
3. Dormant anxiety that a child will not be ready for first grade and life.
Our toddlers are born into competitive capitalistic societies in which writing and reading are very important. Therefore, we perceive it as an important achievement if a toddler reads or writes letters as early as possible. Thus, in many kindergartens and homes, alongside scribbling and drawing pages, there is a tendency to encourage reading and writing that is not in tune with natural development. They are asked to fill shapes with crayons, copy images, etc.
It’s an expression of the anxiety that creates the wish that a child will come with an advantage and be more prepared for their first-graders and life itself.
4. For us adults, pencil maintenance has been reduced to writing alone.
When I see parents in kindergarten, grandparents, members of an extended family, I notice how a pencil is immediately attributed to a named image or writing. Is it possible that it reminds us of only writing when a toddler holds a pencil and scribbles?
Perhaps it is because we forgot the free movement experience on paper?
And if we look at young children and even imitate them, can we reclaim forgotten magical experiences?
So what is recommended and what should we do?
First, we’ll calm down. We all inherited from our ancestors in the caves the human ability to create signs. According to education and learning studies, most children will learn almost by themselves to read and write easily and naturally around six. At this age, the brain is ready for it.
Therefore, our concern is unnecessary. From human DNA, every child will emanate lines, dots, spirals, snails, and the three basic forms, circle, square, and triangle, as will writing and reading come naturally in their time. There is no need to rush them to get there – but to allow them to discover the magic for themselves.
Scribbles and drawings are the ancestors of writing and are also necessary as such.
Early childhood is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of happiness and creativity around scribbling in the paradise of being. Therefore, it is essential to permit them to discover this wonder for themselves.
For them, it will be a thrilling independent discovery of a whole new world, and for us, we can also experience a second childhood – if we can give them that permission.
This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawing by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.
Have a look at the photo below: it shows a set-up or “provocation” that is sometimes offered to children in preschools, generally associated with the Reggio approach. What is your first impression? My opinion is we can’t state it was effective or interesting for children if we know nothing about the context the proposal was offered within.
Why suggest drawing a flower to children? What was the relationship between the children and that flower? And then, according to the answers, why choose those specific drawing tools?
If I have reached the point where a flower is to be drawn, then I would observe with the children first. If the observation shows that the children are interested in the different shades of the flowers, then I would probably not use pens but allow them to mix colours themselves, with more appropriate art materials (like tempera, water colors or even oil pastels or plasticine).
If the interest was the form, then maybe just an ordinary pencil, so the focus was seeing size and shape rather than colour. Or I would just let the children interpret the flower themselves – choose different art materials if they want, because maybe it’s about enjoying the interpretation instead.
If the purpose is to support a child who is struggling with art or communication or some other particular need, a suggestion might be suitable: when a limited choice can be of benefit and offer a necessary structure… but then it is a specific support of helping a child to learn how to select when they are easily overwhelmed, with this structure being removed when they no longer need it.
Thus, every choice is not good or bad in itself.
Beauty, the aesthetics, is also an important aspect, but a beautiful looking proposal can not enable a meaningful process if it does not connect to the real experience of the child.
You are welcome to share your experiences about similar proposals of a drawing setting with a flower (or vegetable subject): why did you choose it? How did the children react?
This post was inspired by the interaction between Roberta and Suzanne, in reaction to Roberta’s post The 100is there.
I interpret being democratic as the ability to participate, impact and be heard with equal value. Not that we are all the same, or that we all do the same thing, or that we all know and can do the same thing… but that all our different experiences, knowledges, abilities and imaginations are valued.It is about permission to be who you are, your rights, accompanied by recognition of the permission others have to be who they are – responsibility. In other words that our own rights should not disadvantage others, but through community and collectivity we can all individually shine. Together we are stronger.
Scribbling as a democratic act.
Everyone should have the permission to be able to scribble. There is a freedom in scribbling that allows the scribbler to experience the materials, feel joy, express emotions, release tensions, explore possibilities, discover their own impact, etc.
As Nona shared in her story of Hillel the series of lines and shapes had a much greater meaning than what can be understood from merely observing the end product.
The process is a story, it is theories being unfolded, it is the expression of opinions and if we are fortunate to be there during the process that is being verbalised we are granted a deeper insight. For non-verbal children (the very young, or for other reasons they are unable to verbally communicate) we might never discover the depth of the process, but we can value it.
By showing a genuine interest, listening to the scribbles we are giving value, enabling participation and providing opportunities to impact.
The scribbles can provide information that leads us to setting up invitations to activities that are meaningful to the child.
If the child struggles with pressure to create marks, choose another drawing tool for them to try with. If they struggle to hold tools, provide opportunities to strengthen hands and fingers, work on their fine motor skills at the same time as opportunities to create scribbles in sensory materials like sand, salt or slime (see the Soothing Nature of Scribbles).
A scribbler is seldom just making random lines on the paper… more often than not they are practising communication. Some children might choose to hide their process because it is not being valued, either by adults or peers, or older children. As we have shared in previous posts, scribbling seldom is given the value that it truly deserves, and this impacts the children in their scribbling phase to feel ashamed of their creative processes.
A creative process is not just those that lead to a “successful” product. Creativity is also about all those processes that result in failure – in the sense that it does not turn out the way the creator wants, or is not useful, or… The reality is that most creative processes remain invisible and most people go around thinking they are not creative – this lowers self esteem.
A scribbling democracy provides the time, space and resources for scribbling to occur and to be valued. There is not the stress that it must proceed to the next phase at a certain age, but when the child is ready. It also allows every individual to return to scribbling whenever they want without negative judgements.
When my son was seven years old the whole class was asked to draw a picture of their favourite thing to play at school. My son drew a picture of one of the rooms with all the tables, chairs, sofas etc correctly placed in the room, he then took a big chunky black crayon and scribbled all over it. It was placed on the wall together with all the other drawings.
The teachers looked at me, and apologised, saying they could not stop him scribbling over his drawing. Other parents looked at it oddly, and gave me “looks”. When I asked my son to tell me about his favourite thing to play he replied, “I love playing hide and seek in the dark”.
The scribbles represented darkness. The adults had assumed that they were just scribbles, had devalued the drawing because of it, and failed to understand the drawing and what my child actually enjoyed playing, at age seven this was how he could communicate a room in the dark – by drawing everything, and then hiding it under a blanket of dark scribble..
There was no democratic equality in this space, because not all forms of storytelling through art were being valued.
According to Lowenfeld’s stages of drawing the scribble stage is not about the communication of ideas but about the joy of making marks. My own personal experience questions this as I have entered scribble dialogues with children, especially the very young, where it is clear there is communication, but the actual forms produced are not the communicating element, the movement is. Often I think it is the child’s lack of fine motor skills that is limiting communication, especially if scribbling is always being done with a pen, crayon or similar tool. Nevertheless, when scribbling in sand, or on an i-pad there is often more dexterity and a kind of freedom to have better control over the marks being produced.
Scribbling is almost like a secret language for young children, revealing how they feel, what they are interested in, and how they are inspired by others.
If we view scribbling as communication, especially when thinking about non-verbal children, it suddenly opens up another possibility of participation that is so crucial in democratic learning and play spaces.
Scribbling is not the same as doodling. Doodling tends to be something that is done without deep thought, and more as a byproduct. Scribbling occurs with different intensities, and if we pay attention to that intensity we may gain an insight on what is being learned and what is being communicated.
By valuing scribbles, we are allowing them to participate in the flow of communication as equal partners with other forms of communication. Thus ensuring scribbling as an act of democracy.