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, and their
kinesthetic (muscle coordination) development. 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
so 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 appropriate 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.
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
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.
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
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. Some children are able to think of good alternatives if they are asked and 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.
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.
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 do we want to make cleaning seem like
we care about 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. Scribbline is instinctive. Children who lack a natural
urge to scribble have probably been chastised rather than praised for
their 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
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
never ask, "What is it?" 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?"
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. It makes us care.
It makes it possible for us to take responsibility.
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 solve
everyday problems, to invent, and to make the world a better more joyous
place for ourselves and those we care about.
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 toddler 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 him 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.
(a little more advanced)
(wow, what skill)
Use noise questions
"Does your marker like to dance" "Does the
crayon like to skate?"
"How fast can it spin?"
"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?"
worry about "pictures" because for the
child much of scribbling is not visual.
It is more about sound, motion, and action
For growth, materials
Maximize use of
Dark and Bright
firm bristle brushes
Clay and similar modeling
materials, wet chalk on dark paper
Blocks - natural wood
Sorting sets of Color,
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.
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.
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.
Related Links by the same author:
more about preschool art
links on learning to think artistically and creatively
how to draw an orchid at age four and three-quarters
About the author.
At this writing I am a parent of three and a grandfather of five. 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 this essay because I get 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