working with children who

scribble on walls

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Art Education
biography ---- contact

© 2004

Updated: March 2, 2014

Toddlers are mesmerizing and entranced by sounds of a pounding crayon and the magic of their markings on an unsuspecting wall.  They experience joy from the texture and exuberance of the motion and surprising expressiveness of the line.  At this age, this is their job. This activity grows out of their innate learning instincts. While the damage to a wall may disappoint and anger a caregiver, children at this age must never be blamed for our lack of adult guidance and supervision.

Some children are scolded for scribbling on the walls. Some children are are even prohibited from using markers and crayons. These approaches could have negative effects on their sense of self-worth, their visual intelligence, their kinesthetic (muscle coordination) development, and possibly slow their readiness for school. Their creative expressiveness will lack an important outlet. It is not easy to prove damage to the mind or to the personality and mental health from the prohibition of scribbling. It would not be ethical to inflict potential damage to experimentally prove this kind of damage. However, it seems quite obvious that scribbling is an essential building block in the development of expressiveness, eye-hand coordination, imagination, and the development of the visualization areas within the brain that are essential to healthy learning and development. 

Learning responsibility in a childproof environment
Children do need to care for their environments by learning to be careful about where they make marks. When we childproof everything, we also eliminate chances for children to make bad choices from which to learn. When there is no chance of a small mistake, there is little chance to learn. Sooner or later, every person makes mistakes. If we have learned from appropriately gentle and empathic responses to our small mistakes, we will know how to make better choices when we make more serious mistakes. Of course, in matters of health and safety, we need to make things childproof. However, in matters that merely protect our easily repaired property values there are real benefits in allowing for mistakes that in turn provide chances to learn. It is not easy to learn responsibility without a chance to practice.

Learning to Care
Thoughtless and impulsive behavior is natural for a young child. Wise parents realize this and look for positive ways to motivate responsible and more "grown up" types of behavior. A wise parent is clear and consistent about caring for the child first and caring for property second. A wise parent also knows that children who learn to care about things and people will be the better for it. Learning to care is to be human. We are each defined by what we care about. The fact that it is better to care for people than for things does not negate the need to learn to care for things. Learning to care for things can be an important habit that is consistent with caring for people.

Appropriate disciplinary responses to build a healthy personality and strong character

If a child inappropriately scribbles on the walls, we can get angry and punitive or we can express profound sadness and disappointment. While these are both understood by the child to be negative responses to a negative act, the sad response will be much more nurturing than the angry response. The sad response can be an honest and consistent affirmation of our love for the child while honestly communicating the child's need to be more thoughtful and caring. The angry response tends to cancel the natural love between parent and child. Angry responses from parents are more apt to foster belligerent and rebelious children. Personalities and responses are largely developed by imitation. Children imitate. There are many reasons that some children are "difficult", but parents who thoughtlessly respond with anger and punishment are doing their part to create bad behavior or festering hostilities that are apt to erupt in unexpected ways.

Creative positive responses 
In addition to being clear about how sad it makes us, if a child scribbles on the wall or makes some other mistake, a creative parent immediately provides an alternative positive and redemptive behavior. This may consist of inviting the child to use the acceptable places and materials that have been provided for scribbling when the urge comes. This clarifies that scribbling is good, but only the place was not good. Children are often able to think of good alternatives if they are asked. Others may still need some coaching. They remember the good alternatives best if we recognize and affirm their good choices, telling them why we think their choices are good.

Positive alternatives include the provision of large inexpensive pads of paper and crayons or markers. Another approach it to install inexpensive white board on the lower portion of certain walls.  If markers are provided, carefully select markers that do not emit toxic vapors. Parents who make the effort to show pleasure when the child remembers to draw at the designated places may still have disappointments, but they are likely to have fewer problems. 

It is generally okay to ask the child to assist in cleaning off the offending marks so long as it is clear to the child that we really like the scribbling, but we just do not like the place that the child selected to do the scribbling. While helping with the cleaning seems like a good activity, not too much can be made of it. We do not want to use the cleaning activity as a reward for mistakes, nor would I want to make cleaning seem like punishment.

Why would we care about scribbling?

Scribbling is a very important developmental task. It is an instinctive learning stage that helps the brain and body develop and build readiness for more the difficult tasks that are learned later. Scribbling is instinctive. Children who lack a natural urge to scribble may have been chastised or ridiculed rather than praised for their experimental efforts. Unfortunately, these children are being retarded in their natural development to be expressive. The brain's ability to develop processing of visual materials may be impaired. The child's eye-hand coordination skills may be slowed. Crawling obviously leads to walking, but many other important kinds of brain development are fostered when a child learns to crawl. So it is with scribbling. Scribbling not only leads to drawing, scribbling provides essential brain development leading to other advanced mental capacities and physical coordination abilities. Children naturally move on to image making, just as crawling children naturally move on to walking. For a child's intellect and personality to develop, there needs to be opportunities to explore, be curious, and be rewarded for this with recognition and praise that tells them why you are praising them. The praise includes telling them where you like them to scribble.

How can we encourage scribbling?

Often a toddler's first scribbles start by pounding something like a crayon on piece of paper. The toddler is empowered and encouraged by hearing the sounds of the pounding. Since a crayon is apt to make marks, the child visually discovers cause and effect. This leads to more auditory pounding, more visual marks, and more discoveries. Parents can affirm both the sound and the marks to encourage them.

I never draw pictures for toddlers because adult drawings can discourage them from scribbling or drawing. These adult visual examples are too difficult. However, I find that when I pound a crayon on paper, they love to imitate me. Our crayon pounding is a kind of back and forth chatter or game as we take turns with our crayons making rhythmic sounds and imitating each other.


We encourage scribbling by providing a place and materials, by acknowledging the work, and by discussing the work in a nonjudgmental ways. In the child's mind scribbling is not meant to be artwork in the sense that we think of artwork. Scribbling for a child is more about action than about creating a product. It is process. It is activity. I might say, "Wow, this looks like you are having fun. Your crayon is really going fast." As the child gets closer to the stage of image making, I might say, "This part looks neat, can you tell me about it?" I avoid asking, "What it it?" Stories, true of not, help us think about imaginary scenarios and make sense of what we wonder about.

As children become verbal and are able describe their work, their minds are learning to think in imaginary and abstract ways. Our ability to imagine is one of the things that makes us human.


RIGHT: A toddler,
age16 months,
enjoys scribbling
on paper with a waterbased
marker pen. At some point he will begin to name his work and tell stories about his "pictures". When this happens, it probably indicates that he is beginning to think in more complex ways.

For the rest of our lives it is our imaginations that allow us to predict the consequences of scribbling on walls and every other expressive act (thoughtless or considerate). Our imaginations help us avoid thoughtless acts that bring sadness from those we care about. Our imaginations allow us to be creative, to empathize, to invent, to solve everyday problems, and to make the world a better more joyous place for ourselves and those we care about. 6months LEFT: The same boy as shown above is shown here at about six months. At this age, he would not easily be able to hold a crayon, but he may be discovering that his hands can leave evidence. A child this age is probably not learning to use imagination, but instinctively enjoys creating tactile, olfactory, and auditory sensory experiences. When infants gain affirmation for their exploration play, they are empowered to self-initiate more exploration, more play, and more learning. They thrive.

What size paper is best?
Generally, large paper sizes are good, but not essential. A remainder of a big roll of white paper from a newspaper company is often given free to parents and teachers. However, there are times and places when very small paper works very well. The scribbles in this video were done in 3 x 4 inch sketch book by a 31 month old boy while attending a wedding ceremony. The video is less than two minutes and shows some of a series of 12 scribbles on a small sketch pad by this toddler. He is working on the floor. By the end of this practice learning activity, I asked him if he would like to draw a boy. You see his drawing of person with a ballpoint pen on 3 x 4 inch paper. In this video we see him move from the scribbling stage to his early symbol stage (also called pre schematic stage). His small muscle skills are quite impressive for his age. At one point we see his younger sister taking an interest in what he is doing. She is still one, but also apt to enjoy scribbling soon.

Also see:

Eleven Questions and Reflections on Learning to Draw as Preschoolers (the chicken lesson) 2014

Stages of

(first scribbles) 

side to side or up and down sribbling

(a little more advanced)

Circular Scribbling
(wow, what skill)

Naming of the Scribble

(becoming verbal)
(becoming symbolic)

Provide Materials

Use noise questions
Use kinetic questions

"Does your marker like to dance" "Does the crayon like to skate?"
"How fast can it spin?"

Use direction 
"Does the crayon go up the paper? Down the paper? Do you like the noise?"

Use size and color
questions for visual awareness and thinking/feeling

Use shape questions: "Does the marker make a circle?"

Utilize sounds, 
noises, music

Do not worry about "pictures" because for the child much of scribbling is not visual. It is more about sound, motion, and action

For growth, materials
need good 
line contrast. 
Maximize use of 
Dark and Bright 
on white
Examples are:
Markers,  Crayons 
Thick Paints
firm bristle brushes 
Clay and similar modeling materials, wet chalk on dark paper
Wet Sand. 
Blocks - natural wood and colored. 
Sorting sets of Color, Texture, Shape.

Minimize use of transparent watercolor, soft hair brushes, and finger-paints because they are subtle, harder to see, and too hard to learn the connection between action and result

For More Growth

Ask for the story of  the picture.

Encourage verbalization, imagination, & explanation. 

Ask about under, over, which is bigger, smaller, sad and happy.

Ask if there is any more or anything else that they want to add?

Did you forget anything?

Express your appreciation and thank the child for helping you look at their scribbles.  

Ask, "Where should I add your name?" It belongs to the child, so allow the child make all the choices. Thinking is learned by doing it for ourselves.

to>preschematic picture
to>thinking picture
to>x-ray picture
to>quest for order
to>scribble information
preschematic information
to>schematic information

  All rights reserved.  This page Marvin Bartel.  
For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author. 


Many authors and researchers in art education have written about the stages of artistic development.  

Viktor Lowenfeld made many observations and described the stages in his book: Creative and Mental Growth.  The 4th  edition of Creative and Mental Growth by Viktor Lowenfeld and W. Lambert Brittain. 1964 includes a  summary with charts describing the development stages in Chapter 13. pages 395 to 402. 

More Related Links by Bartel: 

how to draw an orchid at age four and three-quarters
more about preschool art
links on learning to think artistically and creatively

About the author.  At this update I am a parent of three and a grandfather of six.  I was an art teacher for over 40 years and I maintain an active art studio practice and work as a consultant in the area of children and their art.  I love to get down with kids and encourage them to scribble and draw for me or show me what they can make from a piece of clay.  I share these essays because I become very sad when a child's self-confidence has been undercut by adults who have either done too much for the child or have not approved of the child's natural and honest efforts.  -- mb  

Dr. Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Art Education - biography ---- Contact the author