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.
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.
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.
In many kindergartens in Israel, there is a common worrying behavior. The children stop drawing and scribbling, and many become frustrated and say that their drawings are ugly.
In these kindergartens, coloring pages are often given by the adults, and sometimes they draw an image requested by the child so they can fill it with colours.
The outcome is that the child compares their drawings to their parent or teacher. Thus, the natural flow of childhood scribbling and drawing is disturbed at a very young age, and they stop drawing.
A kindergarten teacher asked me to help her with this issue.
The question was: Can we remedy this?
Will children scribble joyfully again and naturally, even after being exposed to coloring books and/or copying?
Can we turn the wheel back?
I came to the kindergarten that morning and prepared a suggestion/activity for four children.
The table was set up with four kinds of papers and a few black drawing tools such as different sizes of markers, pens and pencils, etc.
“What is this?” Asked the first child.
“This is a scribble-doodle table. Would you like to try it?”
Very quickly, many wanted to scribble and create different lines. I hung the work immediately.
“Why do you hang this? It is only a scribble,” they asked“I love scribbles, and there are so many kinds of them! Can you discover a few? It might also be interesting for other children to look at and perhaps have ideas about what they want to do.”
The meaning of this intervention:
Using black lines only encourages the brain to investigate shapes, lines, and dots. This brought the children immediately to their natural developmental phase to create from. The natural flow was revived. If there were colored pens it would most likely go into schemas as rainbows, hearts, flowers, etc.
The weeks followed, almost all children began doodling once again, and their frustration around “ugly” drawings disappeared.
In that kindergarten, coloring books were no longer available, and the parents were notified, and many of them made some changes at home.
I think that part of this expression of low self-esteem amongst very young children is connected to how the western world understands education.
In many kindergartens in Israel, and maybe around the world, almost all suggestions and interventions are aimed at learning cognitively. Literacy and maths are the top priority of our society.
Play and art are manipulated and directed for that purpose. Suggesting to a child of four to copy an image is doing just that. Teaching a child how to draw a human figure, correcting them is a serious problematic impingement.
The western world measures quantitative elements!
We love numbers and tables, as they seem scientific, meaning it is good, right?
But, how can one measure curiosity, playfulness, joy, imagination, kindness, and sharing?
They are all qualitative! These qualities are the ones that make us human and not our ability to read at the age of five.
So in school, drawings that are representative receive praise, but praise for play, imagination and joy for their own sake is rare.
Have we forgotten that we are much more than cognitive creatures?
Just as we rock babies to sooth them (and quite often, I believe, ourselves too) scribbles can be a part of soothing ourselves. It can be the rhythmic feeling of the body moving, the sensory stimulation of fingers in/on materials, or the vibrations sensed through the tools used. It can be the delight experienced by the eyes or ears as patterns form – the patterns, the sounds… even the smells.
Whether it be doodling to maintain focus while listening on the phone, or to a lesson or lecture… or intentional scribbling, where the individual sits down to create… Many times it is a part of a process to feel calm, to self regulate, to feel good or to maintain focus.
From a brain point of view things that feel good, often feel good because the brain wants you to repeat it again. Doing things over and over is one of the ways the brain learns and evolves. Making connections.
Scribbling, doodling and drawing, especially in things like sand, mud, ooblek, whisked aquafaba, salt etc offers multiple stimuli for the brain. The fingertips pick up the vibrations and texture of the materials, and senses how it moves. The eyes observe the actions of the fingers – traces and tracks appearing that impact how the finger continues – just as both Nona and Roberta have previously shared in their posts.
We should never hurry this process of scribbling – in those scribbles lie the roots of writing, maths, and music – as well as a growing ability for sustained attention. Watching the squiggles, taking joy in impacting the outcome, exploring the possibilities of what their own fine motor skills allow them to do…
Scribbles ought to be valued more, so that children feel safe to scribble and doodle when they feel the need without the adult gaze or judgement of peers limiting their freedom to soothe themselves through art and/or movement with art materials.Providing sensory materials can often open up the door to this scribble freedom. To simply enjoy the process of making marks and tracks in diverse materials – whether that be sand, food, paint or any other sensory material that allows this experience that frees a child from the must-do feeling of having to draw something.
My observations of young children over the years has shown me that scribbles have a kind of magical quality to them… sometimes they are just a scribble, sometimes children observe their scribble and assign a symbol to it – an animal, flower, human, or number/letter – depending on what their eyes convey to the brain. Often I find children start writing almost before they start drawing… small tiny symbols start appearing in rows – lines, almost circles and squiggles, representing letters and words. Sometimes the scribbles, drawings and writing are interwoven on the same piece of paper… small intentional figures and things start to appear, that moves into a sensory need to scribble and end with a few intentional symbols – especially those children with older siblings or in mixed age groups.
I really cannot sing the praise of mixed age groups enough for the genesis and growth of the children’s scribbles and drawing in an organic and joyous manner – that frequently leads to children teaching themselves and each other how to write with only the supporting hand of an adult.
Only one thing is certain – that the written language of children develops in this fashion, shifting from drawings of things to drawings of words. The entire secret of teaching written language is to prepare and organize this natural transition appropriately…Make believe play, drawing, and writing can be viewed as different moments in an essentially unified program of development of written language. Lev Vygotsky, “The Prehistory of Writing,” an essay, c. 1930 in The Mind in Society, 1978
Scribbling is an essential part of this process, as I already wrote it is like the roots, nourishing the soul of drawing, writing and expressing opinions and emotions. The roots don’t stop growing or evolving, just as a plant grows visibly upwards and outwards, so the roots grow downwards and outwards. Scribbling is something we need throughout our lives, and is not simply a phase of the very earliest years of childhood.