Drawing as an act of Democracy – Part 1: Scribbling

By Suzanne Axelsson

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.

This post is part of the Grammar of Drawing project about the expressive language of drawing, in a collaboration between Suzanne AxelssonNona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.

It is translated in five languages:

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