The Stages of Development: Do We Need to Interfere?

How can we teach drawing to children? It all depends on their stage of development, and every child is unique.

  • The First Visual Language: Toddlers learn shapes, have names, and represent objects from picture books. They learn to identify familiar shapes from their scribbles and then use simple shapes to build simple objects, including faces.
  • The Visual System Expanded: As children grow older, they add more detail to their drawings. Faces attach to the bodies and find new ways to represent them. Around age 5 or 5, depending on the child’s age, a sense of pattern develops with trees and houses. Families tell familiar stories, and the symbol library does its job.
  • Identifying Limitations: Problems start around age 10 when appearances and reality become more important. The horse, the rocket taking off, or the gorgeous dress of the horse doesn’t look right. This is because the symbolic language doesn’t work anymore. At this age, some children are obsessed with fine details and drawing. Some children will draw a lot to try and get it right, while others will quit in disgust.

Drawings are a child’s perception of the world. Our responses must not invalidate this.

Unappropriate responses could include:

  • You can create your narratives, or stories, on the drawing. For example: “Oh, that’s a nice dog.” It’s a horse. It looks more like a dog …”.
  • Criticisms of unrealistic expectations or lack of realism. Did you notice how children are expected to recall things they don’t know?
  • Criticism of reality is appropriate for older children. Their inept attempts at realistic detail might be called ‘tightness’, and we may lament their loss of childish innocence.

We fear that we may inhibit a child’s natural creativity. However, it is important to remember that children who aren’t taught how to draw will eventually lose their creative spark.

Children should learn art skills, such as drawing, painting and sculpting. It is important to understand the rules before you can violate them. No one would say that you can make great music if you don’t have years of music lessons. They don’t apply that logic to art.

How can you help a child learn to draw?

Learn how to draw for yourself. The difference between drawing a rectangular house with four square windows and a chimney and drawing the ‘actual‘ house shape is a huge leap of understanding. Drawing is more than just drawing.

This is crucial: first, you have to show your child how to see.

To foster this vision in your child, need to understand what an artist sees of the world.

Don’t expect immediate results. The process of learning how to draw can take years. It all depends on the child’s cognitive development and fine motor skills. Pushing children too fast will lead to unhappiness. Their natural talents will blossom with gentle nurturing.

Learn to listen

Always be positive when creating art with children. Avoid correcting mistakes and instead offer suggestions to guide them.

Art is a space of true freedom in a world where adults control everything. Follow their interests and abilities. If a child is satisfied with their work, you can share your joy. Please discuss with the child why the drawing failed to achieve their goals. Find positives to praise and lessons to be learned.

Discussion points (depending upon age)

  • What do you think about your photo?
  • What do you love about this colour?
  • Let me know what you think about these shapes.
  • These zig-zag/swirly lines are my favourite.
  • Are you a fan of the small/large brush?
  • These colours are vibrant and deep.
  • This is a very interesting pattern.
  • Your drawing reminds me of… The gallery has a picture of your drawing.
  • Excellent attention to detail.
  • You’ve seen the subject.
  • This is a creative way to approach the subject.

Art with your children: Learn about it

Children learn drawing in the same way that they learn to talk (and write later): by copying. Symbols that we use to express our ideas, whether they be sounds, pictorial or written, are usually learned. All of the input we receive from the world around us, including our family, environment, and media, is invaluable.

Drawing with children can help them understand that shapes can have meaning and, more importantly, that they can create meaningful shapes.

Toddlers: Model Drawing

It’s great to draw with toddlers and babies. Begin with basic shapes and then name them. Many will be familiar with their picture books.

Draw simple faces. Draw simple faces. Draw trees, plants, grasses, a house and animals.

Please encourage your children to participate by adding their details or doing their part. Look for pencils or markers in colours such as ochre and magenta. You can also name the primary colours.

Do not apologize for your lack of talent. Your little one will think you are a genius.

Preschoolers: Expanding your vocabulary

By readingBy’reading’ and writing, you can expand your child’s vocabulary with visual symbols.

Ask your child to describe what they are drawing as they draw. While you can give gentle suggestions as they draw, do not insist that they be exact. How many legs does a horse have? Four? Who is the rider of the horse? Are they using a saddle?

You might be able to suggest a line to represent an unfamiliar shape if you are asked. How do I draw a saddle? Maybe a curve line like this? What are some ways to show movement? Make fast, energetic marks. Slow, wavey marks for water… art is all about feeling and seeing.

Just as teachers ask parents to model writing for their children, you can model drawing. Your abilities are not an issue at this age.

Drawing with your child shows you how to express yourself.

School-age: Ready to build skills

If a child is interested in drawing realistically and has good fine motor control (drawing precise shapes), then it’s ready to learn how to create complex pictures.

Realism is just one aspect of artistic expression. This area should be balanced with expressive mark-making, colour experimentation, and non-representational artwork exposures.

Online tutorials and books can be used to practice drawing. Instead of focusing on traditional exercises, let your child focus on what interests them – horses, cartoon characters or fairies. This will keep them entertained.


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