Drawing is a powerful storytelling medium. It allows for rich spontaneous expression and a free flow of emerging thoughts and ideas. As symbolism is not dependant on one’s skill level in creating symbols but simply one’s ability to project symbolic meaning onto something, children are able to communicate through their drawings from a very young age.

Drawing appeals to children’s sense of wonder and their compulsion to make discoveries about and affect the world. When a child is busy scribbling away with some crayons they are making genuine self- discoveries about what they can do. It is also an immensely satisfying experience to make marks on something (paper, the walls or themselves).

“The impulse to make marks seems innate. Babies and toddlers discover by themselves the surprise of mark-making with fingers in spilt food, water and so on, but it’s when they use a crayon or stubby felt pen on paper that their graphic adventures really take off.”

Ursula Kolbe – It’s not a bird yet.

A library of lines, patterns and forms

As they gain greater control and dexterity with their fingers and hands, children are able to control the pen (or pencil or chalk etc) with greater finesse. This combines with developing awareness of pattern and symmetry in the environment.

As these developments converge we begin to see purposeful exploration of line, colour and form. Through experimentation and practice children develop their own internal library of lines, squiggles, shapes and forms which they can then use to communicate their ideas.

Patterns begin to emerge (a series of dots, zig-zags, circles, repeating colours, etc.) and their compositions begin to express a sense of beauty and harmony.

Soon these lines and forms begin to mean something.

Children developing line drawing competence

Pattern – A repeated decorative design

Humans seem hardwired to recognise and respond to patterns. From an early age, children begin to make patterns with materials (lining up blocks etc) or with visual media such as drawing and painting.

Children play with repetition of lines, dots, zig-zags, circles and other forms. Children incorporate these ‘pattern schemas’ into their library of drawing strategies.

Using simple repetition children are able to create very intricate designs which they can use as decorative elements when drawing other subjects.

The essence of a symbol

Part of children’s ongoing research into symbols, forms and motifs seems to be a search for the ‘essence’ of a symbol: it’s crucial and most irreducible elements.

Children will often repeat particular motifs until they are satisfied (?) the image they have drawn matches the mental image they have for that object (e.g. a princess, bear or face).

Children ‘play’ with the symbols, experimenting, modifying and perfecting them. They eventually learn to re-evaluate their work in light of aesthetic standards (their own as well as their peers and teachers/parents/society in general)

How do children define these characteristics? We may never know. The research continues…

Drawing as a medium for cultural transmission

Drawing is a rich and economical medium for children to share ideas. The children’s encounters with one another at the drawing table form part of a shared culture, a culture that is authentic and only truly understood by the participants. What are they teaching each other?

How to draw a star? a snowflake? The perfect rainbow?

These are all motifs that children learn from each other, absorbing them into their own ‘reference library’.

How much of a child’s imagination is spontaneous and how much is informed by culture?

Humans are THE symbolic species, we are driven evolutionarily to create, interpret and respond to symbols. Developing an understanding of symbolic representation (the idea that one thing can represent another, which is the basis of language) is a convergence of many cognitive leaps that occur during the first few years of life. Categorising (and therefore attaching labels to objects), noticing and understanding patterns and symbols in the environment, developing a theory of mind and socialisation are all essential in developing symbolic awareness.

Symbolic understanding is enhanced when it is developed across multiple modalities (e.g. it has been demonstrated that babies who gain exposure to sign language have more advanced vocabularies by age three). This is clearly evident in the creative work children do every day. Each media has its own intrinsic possibilities for the expression of thoughts, ideas and information.

Access to a rich array of media is essential for children to be able to appreciate the expressive potential of language.

“Some transform a sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun”