Teaching Drawing to Young Children: Eleven Questions and Reflections on Learning to Draw as Preschoolers

© Marvin BarFebruary 4, 2014 & updated Oct., 2016
Author bio -  Other Essays on Art and Learning to Think and Feelthor

  I brought in two hens for preschool children to draw. In reviewing the drawings, I was pleased to see evidence that the children had active and engaged minds and hands. As you look at the drawings, you will see that these prekindergarten children enjoyed learning to draw--each in their own way.

It seems that all children have an inherited instinct to pay close attention to live animals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, spiders, and other persons. In prehistoric times, if there were ever any children that did not have the instinct to pay attention to them, they probably did not survive long enough to pass on their instincts to later generations. These drawings illustrate the instinctive motivational power of encountering and relating to other living things.

  child with hens

Therefore, I find that living things are some of the best drawing subjects. A few children may be very fearful of live animals, so it is important to allow them to watch from a distance. Those who have not been around live animals often wait to see how other children relate to the animals and how the animals act. When they see other children enjoying the relationship they often come closer and enjoy the experience.

Hens and other animals should be healthy, and children should wash their hands after petting them. If we feed the animals the same foods that we eat, I do allow the children to taste the foods themselves first, and then see if the bird or animal also likes the food. For sanitary reasons, I sequence the things so the children taste the foods before feeding the animal and before petting the animal. With hens we might begin with cereals, then try greens like lettuce, and small pieces of fruit work well. We can eat steel cut oats, but with grass and insects, children are not asked to taste them prior to offering them to the animal. If you want some excitement, try live earthworms as chicken food. Dangle them above the chickens to see what happens.

A few children may be allergic to some animals such as cats. I would not bring in an animal if a child in the class had an allergy to the animal. I only use animals with a mild temperament that are comfortable around children. Many other drawing subjects that children enjoy include real food including fruits and vegetables, living plants, real flowers, toys, stuffed animals, musical instruments, athletic equipment, playground equipment, and many other things from their lives.


class drawing

ABOVE: A preschool class enjoys drawing chickens

BELOW: Before the preschoolers began drawing they have a chance to taste Cheerios and drop a few pieces into the cage for the chicken. If none of the children have an egg allergy, a hard-boiled egg is opened and they also get to taste a small sample, but this is not shared with the chicken. They can also drop some small samples of things like grain and fresh grass in front of the chickens into the cage. If my garden has some, I drop in earthworms as the climax to the tasting and eating activity.

Then I hold a chicken and give them a chance to pet her, count her toes, examine her face in detail, and watch how her wings can flap. Petting is optional. Cautious children may watch from a distance. After they see friends petting the chicken, most children decide that they want to pet her. Children are motivated to draw when they have an interesting experience that they enjoy and wish to remember. The drawings give them a great way to share the experience with their parents.



QUESTIONS about how I teach.

Why did I not help the children by drawing for them (I did not show them any drawing or example)? Why did I not show the children a picture to help them know how to draw?

ANSWER: I do not want them to look at my drawing or my example because they need to learn how to depend on themselves to look and see what they are drawing from. I have them draw from an actual live animal, bird, insect, reptile, person; real food items, toys, live plant, actual musical instrument, and actual places in their surroundings. I hope that children learn to feel confident in drawing from observation, from their imaginations, and from their memories.

Many of these subjects lend themselves to multisensory motivation activities as we learn more about the subject before beginning to practice. Children who actively interact with living animals as they examine, feed them, pet them, and so on will be more inspired to draw them. Fruits and vegetables that are opened up for them to smell, taste, and examine the inside and outside patterns, textures, lines, shapes, colors, and tones. They can help plants with water, light, and warmth to grow. When they touch, smell, taste, listen, as well as see things; they become more engaged. Their artwork is more individualized, complete, and expressive. When they are engaged, they work longer, include more detail and elaboration, and they experience the flow of creativity that enriches their experience.

I do not show them my drawings or any pictures because the act of transforming from three dimensions to a flat drawing helps their mind learn to enjoy problem solving. They learn to do stronger thinking. Transforming is more creative than imitating. Transforming is more challenging and more uniquely individual. I often mention to them that I really like to see all the different and special ways that they each of them draws the same thing in so many different ways.

We are not born with a natural instinct to learn to read and write, but virtually everybody is born with the instinctive ability to draw without any direct instruction.


2.     How can we helpfully respond to: “I don’t know how to draw a (whatever they want help with)”?

ANSWER: I do not show them how I draw. I explain and show how I see. I want them to learn to observe better.  I use my finger or the back end of the pencil and go close to the thing we are looking at and move my finger around the edges of the thing to point out how my eye sees it. I start with an easy part. Then can imitate by practicing with their finger in the air to build confidence.

BELOW:  A preschool child said she did not know how to draw an egg. There were two eggs with the chickens. I pointed to my pencil close to the nearest egg and asked her how should I move the pencil to make it go around the egg? I asked if she could show me with her pencil. She moved it in a circular way. I said, "Thank you for showing me how to do it. Can you do it on your paper with your pencil." I asked what color the eggs were. They were brown eggs, so in this case the child shaded in the egg rather than leaving it white.





I do not need to imagine or remember things for them. I need them to practice thinking and using their own imaginations and memories. I use open-ended questions to help them think of things that they already know. I try not to show or think for them. I try to make it easy enough for them to learn to see, to think, and do it themselves. Sometimes it is just clarifying that it is okay for them to experiment and learn to do it themselves.

When they stop drawing too soon, I ask them open questions to help them think of more content. I ask if they would like to draw the answers for me. Sometimes a say, "Did you forget to draw anything that you would like to add?" Sometimes the learn to ask this on their own and their pictures become more elaborate showing us that the are becoming more curious and aware..

3.     Scribbling is a normal stage of development. What questions are helpful, reassuring, and developmentally appropriate to ask a child who scribbling?

ANSWER: I do not talk down to scribbling. I tell them how good it is to see their lines and motion in their picture. At first, scribbling may be just banging the drawing tool. I play with them by imitating the sounds and rhythms they are composing. I bounce my finger on the drawing and make some noises with my mouth.

As they make lines, I comment on how their drawing tool is moving across the paper. I might ask them if it is sliding, jumping, skating or dancing on the paper.

If they appear to be close to drawing images, I might ask them if they would like to tell me the story of their picture. Eventually, scribblers begin to name their “pictures”. They are doing a new kind of transformation thinking than can imagine and verbalize what is visual.

They eventually make real pictures. It is good for us to encourage scribbling because it is the natural preparation for the next steps in the their development.



ABOVE: Scribbling takes on different styles. It is an important and enjoyable developmental activity. It begins as kinesthetic practice without much attention to visualization or purposeful thinking. These two scribbles were done while most of the preschoolers were making drawings of the two chickens.



ABOVE: Scribbling can appear very determined and purposeful as seen above, or it can be appear deep and multi-layered as seen on the left. Various styles allow for the expression of feelings, but also provide valuable practice and orientation for the day when they begin to think of drawing as images that tell stories. Children hear the sounds, feel the motion, and learn to see what happens when they move their hands in various ways.


class   LEFT: After getting to know the two chickens by feeding them, petting them, examining their faces, their wings, and counting their toes, the children make their own drawings of the chickens. Each drawing is very unique because they are working as individual interpreters of their experiences and observations.


4.      Responding to an “Off Topic” drawing?

ANSWER: If a child draws their dog when others are drawing chickens, I would not prohibit or criticize work that comes from the child’s mind and heart. I am thankful and positive about real expressions. I invite them to tell me about their work so that I can know them better and understand their interests better. I might affirm the dog drawing and ask them if they think their dog would like to play with a chicken.

5.      What to say when we can’t tell what the child has drawn?

ANSWER: I do not ask them what it is. I invite them to tell me about. Then I can take an interest in what the child is thinking about.

6.      How are children helped when they tell us about their drawings?

ANSWER: When they transform their drawings into stories they are learning to think. It develops their imaginative powers Some teachers type out some of these stories and post them with the drawings.


7.      What are the mind building aspects of self-planned drawing from an experienced activity?

ANSWER: When children learn to plan and practice before making a final project, they learn from mistakes and how to it helps to do things more than once. When we do our own planning, we build self-confidence and persistence. This happens naturally when a child decides to erase something or to start over. Sometimes starting over can be a way to learn from practice. In other cases it can be a sign of unrealistic self-expectations. It is our responsibility to be sensitive about this and be ready to help them understand the value of accepting where we are in our abilities so we can feel good about practice that makes it easier in the future. Also see question #2 above.


eggsABOVE: "I am getting some of the eggs. My chickens have wings to fly out of their cage. They finished laying all their eggs, so they are going to eat some grass."

The eggs showed up in some of their drawings because two real eggs were in the cage with the two chickens (hard boided). Nobody in thes group had egg allergies, so they had also been offered a taste of one the eggs, most of them liked it.

8.      What might it mean if a child draws only a small thing in the lower corner of the paper? How might a teacher be helpful?

 ANSWER: Small drawing may mean that they are afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes it helps if I reassure them of what they have done by saying, “This is a good job, I wonder if you could make it so big that it fills all this space.” If they do it, I try to give another affirmation for how well it fits on the paper now.

Small drawing may mean that they are not thinking about size, or they are not seeing the opportunity of large spaces.


9.     What might be gained by asking the children if they would like to add some color to the drawings they made on Friday?

ANSWER: This is an affirmation of what they have done, but leaves room for improvements. When we continue to elaborate on previous artwork, we help them keep considering more options and they learn the value of being persistent and thorough in their efforts.

x-ray dwg   LEFT: The eggs shown inside the chickens are based on the child's knowledge that the eggs come from inside the chicken. Perschoolers often make x-ray drawings, and drawings that show things from mixed viewpoints in the same picture. Their earliest drawings locate things and size them according to importance (what is drawn first often uses much of the paper). As they get older they tend to add a baseline near the bottom and a sky line near the top. Generally, drawings proceed from this random looking arrangement to a more rigid and structured arrangement.


10. It is developmentally normal to for preschoolers to show what they already know more than what they observe. Which drawings obviously do this?

ANSWER: Drawings that show rigid stereotypes and simplification are expressions of previously learned images that overpower their need to take a new look or have a fresh experience with what they are drawing. As children mature, they can become frustrated when they notice that their old way of drawing looks childish to them. This is why I often bring in things they have never drawn before to encourage habits of careful looking in order to know how to draw. When drawing familiar subjects, I ask them new questions and call attention to new ways of looking more intently and carefully at common subjects.

11. Open questions and preliminary experiences make their passive knowledge active*. What do we see in the drawings to show the evidence that they drew because their passive knowledge was made into active knowledge?

ANSWER: In drawings from memory or imagination children often draw a very simplified version of what they remember or imagine. I do not need to tell them what to add or what to elaborate. I can ask them open-ended questions that get them to remember or imagine things. When I see new things appearing in their drawings as a result of my questions, I know that my questions have activated ideas that they already had, but had not considered. Children tend to learn to imitate my questions so that even when I am not there, they make better and more elaborate and imaginative drawings.


eggs LEFT: The actual cage contained two brown eggs. This child drew about 20 eggs, two hens, and the wire cage.  
No, these are not ghosts. The large center hen has its wings extended and has two eggs inside of her.   chickens
flock   LEFT: This child is imagining a whole flock of hens.

RIGHT: The preschooler who drew this chicken was obviously impressed by watching the chicken show how it could fly.

Learning to draw gives wings to our imaginations. It allows us to express what we see, what we feel, what we invent, and what we think tells the stories important to us.

Learning to draw excersizes the mind as the child creatively transforms things and ideas into pictures. Many of the same processes the mind uses to make verbal and written stories are practiced when a drawing is invented. It is quite reasonable that children who invent many of their own drawings will find it easier to write and verbally explain things better.



worm   LEFT: This child has drawn herself feeding various things to the hens. The hen is enjoying a worm..


Credit: I credit much of my philosophy to Viktor Lowenfeld and to Phil Rueschhoff, who studied with Lowenfeld and told us about ways Lowefeld worked with young children. Since the 1960's I have worked with and observed many children who have developed into thoughtful and successful adults in part because they learned to do their own learning. The adults in the lives of these children entrusted to them bring their own acquired experiences and passive knowledge actively into their expressions. They had the freedom to be curious, imaginative, expressive, experimental, and creative.


All Rights Reserved:© 2014, Marvin Bartel.  Updated: 2016. Anyone may print one copy of this essay for personal use.  Those who wish to make copies, publish, or post any part of this electronically or otherwise must get permission to do so. Your responses are invited. You may make a link to this page. Please do not request a link exchange unless you have already created a link to this page. Any quotation or reference to this page must include a link to this page, or if printed, must include the URL of this page.
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For a full listing of pages on teaching creativity and creatively see Art and Learning to Think and Feel. This page includes a search box at the top right of the page where you can search from the many pages on the whole website.

Why do we draw?-- This is from a page at the end of  Drawing to Learn DRAWING a book by Marvin Bartel © 2010

Drawing is an instinct we were all born with. We have to be taught to read and write, but we are born with the ability to learn to draw. Drawing is so important that we learn it without a teacher. Drawing is so essential for our survival and success that toddlers learn to draw before they begin first grade. Here are some of the many ways that drawing helps us in our lives.

1. We need drawings to figure out things that we are thinking about. Drawing makes us smarter. When I make something, I often do several drawings to see how it should look or it figure out if it will even work.  What would happen if architects, designers, and inventors did not draw first? Many math problems are much easier if you draw them first.

2. Inventors do lots of drawing to help them imagine better ideas. Drawing helps us become more creative and successful. I have one invention that I have been drawing and changing and improving for the last 40 years. Most inventions have not yet been invented. Drawing will help us discover them.

3. Drawing makes us surer of ourselves, more confident, and less afraid to make mistakes. Drawing teaches us that many mistakes can be fixed and many mistakes are good because they help us discover new ideas.

4. Drawing teaches us how to think better because when we draw our mind is always thinking about new ways to draw things. This makes us grow more thinking neurons and we get smarter.

5. Drawing helps us notice and see more. After you draw something, it is harder to forget how it looks. If you make a very careful drawing from a real fish, you will notice all the parts of the fish. If you want to learn all the parts of anything, there is no better way to learn them. Without drawing it, you could easily miss some very important part.

6. Drawing helps us explain things and give instructions. It is often much easier to understand something from a drawing than from words. Drawings are much better than words when you do not know the language and you looking for the bathroom. Maps are drawings that tell us about the world and keep us from getting lost. Drawing a chart or a graph helps us make comparisons and choices. It makes things easier to remember.

7. Drawing helps us keep records, keep track of things, and record history as it happens.

8. Drawing is wonderful way to help us tell stories and jokes.

9. Drawing is good way to make an argument. We often see drawings in the newspaper that exaggerate something to make a point about politics. Drawings often are used in advertising to try to convince us to buy something.

10. Drawings are often used to keep us safe. Warning signs use drawings to remind us what might happen and that we need to be careful.

11. Drawing is used to make things more beautiful. Like music, they can lift our spirits.

12. Drawing can remind us of bad and good things that happen and bad and good things that people do. This can make us into better people if we learn from these drawings.

13. Drawings, symbols, and designs are used in churches, mosques, synagogues and special places to help give meaning to ideas and feelings that are often too hard to put into words.

14. Like dancing and singing, drawings and other artworks help us express our feelings and our dreams. Drawing helps us celebrate, express joy and sadness, and show our feelings to each other and for each other.