by Nona Orbach
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.
And they will build a dictionary of universal and personal shapes, forms, and choices that will grow and emerge. It is a deep process that is most necessary emotionally, cognitively, and technically.
What do children need?
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.
It is translated in six languages: