Scribbles are the building blocks of children's art. Rhoda Kellogg
From approximately ages one through four, children go through what art educators call the scribbling stage. They enjoy scribbling tremendously, and benefit from enthusiastic support in their endeavors by loving adults. That the word scribble is used so often as a term of disparagement is one indication of how we fail our children in their quest for knowledge. Scribbling includes all of the hand and arm movements needed later in writing, and is an essential activity for all children. Although most adults cannot make any sense out of scribbles, it is far from a senseless activity. The motor activity that takes place during scribbling is a good example of children who are engaging in learning that contributes to language development. Arnold Gesell, the noted child psychologist, pointed out that language and social growth are developed through kinesthesis, or body movement. Visualize a child learning about the concept of round, not by having it explained by an adult but by playing circle games, catching a ball, eating an apple, or spinning a hula hoop.
Children scribble purposefully and it represents a growth process. Well-meaning parents and teachers who try to teach a child in this stage how to draw an apple or a face produce only frustration and insecurity. That these marks on a page have any connection to real objects is not what an art experience should be like for a child under the age of four. The child can already "read" pictures and photographs in books and magazines, but it will be a long time before he or she "writes" them in the same sense. Children do not learn art in the same way that they learn to write. A child must be shown what each letter of the alphabet looks like and what it means, and taught how to make it. The same child independently invents each of the scribble shapes that later become letters, and soon discovers, without being shown, how to draw realistic objects. In fact, being "taught" is more likely to interfere with the child's ability to learn. I recommend giving a child a crayon sometime around the first birthday.
The first time you offer a child a crayon, it generally goes directly into the mouth. If you purchase nontoxic, unwrapped crayons, there is no reason to thwart this initial exploration. Offer your child his or her first crayon and demonstrate its use by quickly scribbling a few lines on your own paper and then removing your paper from sight to discourage copying.
The first scribbles can be done by accident. Then the mental connection is made and the child recognizes that his or her arm movements cause the lines on the paper. Interest in scribbling begins at that point. Attention span is short for the beginning scribbler, and the child frequently draws while attention is focused elsewhere. This occurs because the physical action is what is important to the child, not the picture itself. Early scribbles reflect the child's limited physical coordination. The lines generally go back and forth or up and down, and are created by shoulder movement rather than hand or arm movement. As the child matures, coordination improves and the attention span lengthens. Scribbles then include circular lines, and the child commences experiments with all of the shapes in the "alphabet" of scribbles. The following illustration is an example of a child's early scribble.
First scribbles should meet with the same praise and encouragement that first steps do. Indeed, that is what they are! These two developmental achievements happen at about the same time, and both signal great growth and new potential. Your positive reaction to your child's art helps establish a healthy, confident self-image and adds immeasurably to self-esteem. Because you are accepting of this work, your child is free to progress naturally. Vague compliments such as "very pretty" and "I love your drawing" are value judgments that do not help the child move ahead and grow. In fact, children often will interrupt their explorations to draw parent-pleasing pictures ad infinitum. Criticizing, correcting, and directing art activities cripple the child's efforts and eventually cause the child to stop enjoying art. Many people proudly teach their children to write their names at this time, and the children abandon scribbling to repeat these movements over and over. This should be viewed as interference of development and is akin to the old Chinese custom of binding a child's feet. It looks pretty, and is socially acceptable, but it cripples.
In The Psychology of Children's Art Rhoda Kellogg and Scott O'Dell isolate the twenty basic shapes with which all children begin their artistic endeavors. As you look at them, you can see that, combined in different ways, these lines and shapes make up our alphabet. Ms. Kellogg collected and studied thousands of scribbles and is responsible for most of the significant work in this area. I recommend her book to all parents, caretakers, and teachers. From ages one through two, children scribble randomly; then they begin to concentrate on establishing a full vocabulary of scribbles, experimenting with each of these twenty shapes:
Twenty basic scribbles. Illustrations adapted from Analyzing Children's Art by Rhoda Kellogg
All of the world's alphabets were derived from the shapes children experiment with as scribblers. Here you see the title of this book, Young at Art, written in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Observe that only the basic scribble shapes are needed to create each letter.
Young at Art
The words "young at art" in English, Chinese, and Japanese, demonstrating how all alphabets are derived from the lines in children's scribbles
By age three, after about two years of scribbling, the child begins to notice similarities in completed scribbles to things he or she knows, and will name them. The child is still not setting out to draw something in particular, but notices, after the shapes are drawn, that they share characteristics in common with real objects. Since many different objects share a similarity to a single shape, the objects named, or story told about a single drawing, may change from viewing to viewing. It is therefore not particularly helpful for you to record the picture's name or story for posterity. Many parents and teachers listen to the story a child tells about a scribble and proceed to write the story directly on the picture or to label lines in the drawing with the names of objects they are supposed to represent. An adult's writing on a picture is an unnecessary intrusion into the child's work. It alters the arrangement and composition of lines and shapes on the background that the child has produced. This adult labeling also prevents the child from changing the story or the names of things and discourages the child from reading new things into the shapes at a subsequent viewing. The adult's writing may be taken as a kind of sanctioning of the first story. It finalizes the description and prevents the flexibility and fluidity of thinking that should come naturally at this stage of development.
Most helpful is for you to verbalize for the child just what characteristic in the drawing makes it look like something else. For example, today's "Yes, I can see that your road is very long" can become "That is surely a very long train" tomorrow.
The child recognizes that the drawn line is long, much like a road, a train, or a multitude of other things. It is this mental connection that is of great significance. This use of lines and shapes as symbols for other things is the bridge leading to symbol recognition and formation used in reading and writing. It stands to reason that the more experience a child has in dealing with producing art, the easier learning to read and write will be later on. People who push children to read very early are stealing time from this important prereading activity. The effect is often to make reading more, not less, difficult.
If given freedom to experiment with scribbles, the child, midway through his or her third year, makes an important discovery. By connecting the two ends of a line, a shape is created. The scribbled lines now have a beginning and end and enclose specific shapes. Moving from line experimentation to making round or oval shapes represents an enormous step forward. New possibilities present themselves frequently, and it is a matter of a short time before these shapes become realistic objects. Add dots for eyes and you have a face; radiating lines transform it to a wheel, flower, or sun. If encouraged to develop freely, one of the shapes the child will be experimenting with will be the mandala form, which is usually a circle or a square with a center and radiating lines.
After the child achieves proficiency with lines, he or she can be expected to draw shapes in this progression of readiness:
Ages 2½ — 3½
Ages 4½ — 5½
Ages 5½ — 6½
Ages 6½ — 7½
Giving younger children stencils to trace or patterns to color in won't change human nature. Rushing things and pushing children to do things before they are ready exacts a toll by causing problems in other areas, most notably in the child's self-confidence. The Crayola Crayon Web site, www.crayola.com, states, "Children's creativity is strengthened when they create original works of art. That creativity is stifled and children's artistic competence is compromised when they mindlessly color predrawn pictures."
Mandalas are usually circles or ovals with crossed lines over them. Carl Jung described them as "a search for order." When normal art development is allowed to occur without too much interference or undue outside influence, variations of the mandala come at the turning point in children's art at about age four, after free scribbling experimentation and before representational drawing. Mandalas take many forms and are sometimes difficult for adults to locate in the middle of a scribble. Just as all children, though they share certain simi-larities, are quite different, so too are their drawings. The mandala is not always the clearly defined shape that we might expect. It takes on all of the many individual characteristics of the child's personal search through shapes and forms. Though the variations may be great, the basic shape is still there.
It seems to me that a parallel development is a shape that looks like this:
It is not technically a mandala by definition, but it is similar in that it has a sense of symmetry through repetition of lines and it conveys a feeling of a sense of order.
The evolution of the mandala into a human being is easy to trace. Dots learned in scribbling suffice for eyes, with the radiating lines becoming the arms, legs, fingers, toes, teeth, hair, and eyelashes.
Adults often wonder where the torso is, and "help" children by talking about tummies, chests, and belly buttons. The child has known where his or her belly button is for two years already and needs no reminder. The circle is really a symbol representing the whole human being and is derived directly from the mandala, which is in turn derived from scribbling experiments. The child who has learned to draw a human being in this self-taught manner retains the ability forever and will probably continue art experiments. The child of the same age who has put together an adult-planned human has learned nothing from the experience. Lessons contrived to "teach" children about such things as human anatomy and facial structure are completely off base. For the preschooler, art is not the vehicle for increasing body awareness, as it might be with seven-year-olds. It is counterproductive to impose subject matter on a child under seven. Communicating your own preference for subject-related art is in no way helpful.
The drawings done during this period of development in child art are often called tadpoles since they resemble them. Even this term shows the common thread of misunderstanding running through young children's art. Adults seem to need a label for drawings, even when it is inaccurate and is not intended by the child. Later, when realistic drawing begins, the mandala reappears as windows, suns, wheels, and spiders.
The sunlike mandala is an early example of the many shapes and patterns that children make in their quest for mastery of drawing. Mandala drawings precede the first realistic efforts, which usually come at around age four. Calling them suns or wheels often happens after the drawing is completed. It is retained in subsequent drawings as a "sun" at the top of a drawing, although other shapes are discarded or assimilated. As the child progresses through the scribbling stage, the mandala finds its way into a child's pictures for many years, sometimes into adolescence. I believe this is because it is quickly labeled a sun by an overanxious adult. This label, or adult stamp of approval, is seen as a preference for this form over others that meet with no interest and is retained in a desire to please and to be more "grown-up."
This point in scribbling development is so crucial to the child's normal development that it can be devastating to now rush the process or "teach" the child how to represent realistic objects. The capacity to discover the mandala lies within every child, as does the later need to represent people and objects realistically.
Art educators and psychologists have different theories to explain the psychological meaning of the mandala form children draw. It isn't necessary to read about the many conflicting theories art educators have about the meaning and origin of each scribble. Like walking, all healthy children do it. Indeed, not doing it indicates a problem. The question should be, "How can parents best recognize and assist children in this developmental hurdle?" The answer is to offer as much time as the child needs to pursue art, a place in which to do it that can get messy if necessary, and encouragement and approval. The key words should be "Don't teach." Instead, let your child learn.
In my experience, I find that the more parents know or think they know about art, the more harm they are inclined to do. By having fixed ideas, they have a tendency to impose rules prematurely and perpetuate fixed stereotypes about how to draw or make things.
In scribbling, of which the mandala is part, the child utilizes lines. The lines start out freely and progress through an unconscious use of increasing repetition and patterns and, later, enclosed shapes. Children who are kept busy making turkeys and Christmas trees can't concentrate on the evolution of the scribbling process. Communicating to our children that "pictures" are better than the patterns they obviously have an enormous need to do can cause them to abandon art. Most children, in fact, do this when they are not allowed to develop freely. When the child accepts the parent's notions that pictures have to be pretty and that pretty means realistic, the personal search for understanding the world through art ends.
Scribbling can reflect the physical development of a child and provide an emotional outlet. The experience of scribbling, according to Viktor Lowenfeld and W. Lambert Brittain in their book Creative and Mental Growth (page 132),
is mainly one of motor activity. At first satisfaction is derived from the experience of kinesthetic motions, next from a visual control of lines, and finally from the relationship of these lines to the outside world.
Scribbling also reflects the child's personality. A timid child will do light, timid-looking scribbles, while the work of outgoing, gregarious children looks bold and dramatic. The child cannot help but approach art materials in the same way he or she approaches life. Children at this age do not intend to express their feelings through art when they draw or paint, but they inadvertently do exactly that. You can learn so much about a child, by both watching the child at work and looking at the finished art. Two children, in the same stage of development, given identical materials, will make vastly different pictures. A wonderfully sensitive nursery school teacher told me that after she got to know her students, she always recognized who had done a painting without looking for the child's name. I am still sometimes astonished to see the results of two toddlers, sitting side by side doing the identical art project, and coming up with two pictures that look so different.