Talking to Children About Their Art Work

20130220_110819It is always a bit awkward when your little one has spent so much time on a drawing and then presents it proudly to you … but you have no idea what it is, when (of course) it must be plainly obvious to the artist who stands behind it. What do you say?

What do you say when you look through the collection of your child’s artwork that have come home from school or kindy at the end of the term? This one is difficult, because even your child might not be sure of what their images are, having created them so long ago.

For young children, art is an activity that allows them to express what they are thinking and feeling IN THAT MOMENT. It may be the movement that used while art-making that represents something for them, it may be they have discovered a new way of using the materials, or a new shape they like, or it may be they are representing something from a memory.

It may be that while they were creating, their images may have changed from one thing to another in their mind … and often this is the case when children explain their pictures. Many is the time I have looked at one of my three year olds’s drawings, that I recognise as a car, only for him to say “No its a house!”, and then to go and show Dad the car he just drew!

I have to admit, it is a relief when an image drawn by your child is distinctly recognisable, and clearly an image that isn’t going to change form through explanations. This stable sense of respresentation in art only comes after many many opportunities to practice creating form, which only comes when the brain is ready to translate thoughts into pictorial images, which comes when children’s language, cognitive and motor skills are synergised… which happen during play! And so we need to be patient and thoughtful when talking to children about the images they produce, and appreciate their representations with an awe of wonder about the body processes going on in the background!

When teaching in early childhood I often care for the children’s artwork in a folder and return it to them at the end of each term, wrapped beautifully together with a note explaining to parents how they may receive it. The note went something like this:

Dear parents,

Your child’s collection of artwork has been created during a variety of experiences, through both guided and unguided creative time. Some of this work is an exploration of colour and form. Some of this artwork may represent themes, ideas, feelings or experiences that were very important and interesting to them in the moment. Some of this artwork was created in spontaneous play. Your child may remember these stories and experiences and wish to share them with you, or they may have forgotten about them the moment they hung their work to dry! All of this artwork, however, represents your child’s experiences of wonder, experimentation, imagination, physical growth and play. Receive this work in wonder and let your children be your guide when viewing it together.

I found by being quiet while we looked at my children’s drawings from kindy together, that some would be passed over, some would be forgotten, and others they would launch into a detailed explanation that obviously had triggered the memory of a powerful experience that led to that drawing.

When talking to children about their drawings we often slip into a certain kind of language: we compliment (“That’s interesting!”), we make judgements (“That’s fantastic!”), we offer a value statement (“I love this”) or we ask flat out “what is it?”

I’m not saying these are the wrong responses, because I know at times my son is seeking these kinds of comments, but for images we cannot recognise, ones we want to know more about, or to encourage artistic language when discussing children’s artwork, we can use different techniques:

♦ Use reflective dialogue: speculate on why the artist made the work in just that way, wonder aloud how they mixed colours, etc, say for example “Ooh, that’s an unusual colour! How did you make that?”

Share your observations: discuss the elements and qualities of the image form: “I see how this line travels all around the page”, “that is a very round shape’, “this one is so jagged and spiky!”

Ask for the story: encourage children to talk about the meaning behind the artwork by asking them why they decided to place images (such as suns, rainbows, cars…etc) in their work.”Would you like to tell me about your picture?” or “What were you thinking about/imagining when you created this?”.

♦ Comment on the effort children make while engaged in the art making process. Let them know you value their effort as much as the final process.

♦ Share how you feel when you look at their artwork: “This picture is so bright, it makes my eyes happy to look at it!”, or “This picture makes me want to jump right into that ocean and go for a swim!”

There is not a right or a wrong way to discuss children’s artwork, but it is a process of being mindful of what they are capable of discussing when it comes to talking about their images. Try all the above suggestions! Wait and observe silently at first. Then if you feel that a response is expected, talk about what you see in terms of lines and colour (no value judgments! Knowing that we like their use of red is a risk if red represents something they are unhappy with!), reflect on how and why, ask if the picture took a long time to draw, let them know how you appreciate their efforts and thank them for sharing it with you!

It may be they do not wish to tell you about their picture, or they don’t have words to describe it. Perhaps they cannot remember or do not wish to share what they were thinking about. If this is the case, then receive in loving silence. A warm gesture such as a smile a hug and thank you will be enough. 

Another suggestion is to appreciate other artists’ work with your child. Go to the art gallery and the museum, borrow art books from the library. Display beautiful and interesting images in your home. You don’t have to critique each and everything you see, but the more your child sees of artwork in the world, the easier it will be for them to transform their experiences into artwork of their own and talk about them with you.

Children’s Development in Drawings Part 3 – Working with Imitation

It is a fascinating past time watching a child’s consciousness emerge through their drawings, particularly if you know what you are looking for! Certain images and themes tend to arise in children’s drawings at particular ages – and this happens all over the world! Different cultures might move through stages of drawing sooner than others, but generally the pattern is the same.

When I was in my final year of university, studying for my Bachelor of Education, I was involved in an art-exchange project with Hubei, China. We worked with 4-5 year old Australian children and collected samples of their drawings. We framed them and exhibited them, alongside a similar collection of drawings from children of the same age from Hubei. The difference in artwork was astounding! The Australian children’s drawings were simple and active. They were free in subject matter and the way I saw them our children portrayed the way they FELT about their pictures using the minimum of lines on the page. By contrast the Chinese children’s drawing were very intricate and detailed. They used every spare bit of space on the paper and filled the white space with drawings executed with depth and perspective. They were technical masterpieces in the way that the Australian children’s drawings were filled with joy and reflected their active lifestyle.

Clearly these children, who were of the same age, experienced the learning of drawing in different ways. We do not tend to coach our children in technical details of drawing until much later in age, instead letting our children unfold in their own manner as they draw. For me, this process is preferable as one can see how the child thinks, and what they are experiencing in their environment and their bodies as their drawings develop naturally. All the same, I do believe there is room for imitation and instruction in drawing, particularly for the child who WANTS to learn more.

My colleagues and I always found this a touchy subject to broach in our Waldorf community of teachers – many who believed that drawing time should be as the child needed it to be: an opportunity to experience colour and make their mark on paper. Others believed that as children learned strongly through imitation that the teacher should draw too. I would always draw with my classes. Yes, the children on either side of me would often copy what I drew but I was careful not to draw anything that was too ‘beyond’ their level of skill or experience. Instead I focussed on using different techniques for using the block crayons our school provided, and drawing simple patterns to encourage pre-writing skills, with an occasional detailed picture when it was requested. The children who craved detail were very attentive to these drawings and would take up particular techniques I used to enhance their own drawings. Often I would learn from THEM! Children are very observant.

For children who were ‘stuck’ in doing the same drawing with the same colour everyday I would sometimes sit next to them and draw something a little different, to give them new ideas. But never did I correct a child in their drawing, and never did I question the appropriateness of their choice of colour or subject matter.

And still, even with a variety of ‘skill-levels’ within the children of each of my classes, they would all at some stage end up drawing the same patterns/images at around about the same age. It is a phenomenon I have never grown tired of observing, and of course I am delighted to see it happening for my own children too.

Children’s Development in Drawings Part 2: 3.5 – 4.5 years

In my previous post on this subject I looked at the early drawing forms all children use: scribbles and circular lines. This type of drawing is most prevalent between the ages of 2 and 3.5 years of age, and for a long time that was all we would see from Kaelan, as far as drawing went. He never was one to spend a great deal of time making pictures, until recently, preferring instead to construct images from blocks and connecting toys. Just about all the drawing samples I collected from Kaelan were his only early drawings!

When he did sit for a brief moment to create a picture, Kaelan would move between phases of drawing frequently and suddenly, and now and then we would get so excited by a new development in his drawing, only then not to see those images or skills reappear again for several months. This next picture is one of those thrilling moments. When Kaelan was 3.5 years of age Rosella entered our family, and Kaelan surprised us all by drawing an entire family portrait. Until now we had only seen him draw figures once, and it was certainly not as detailed as this:

I was so proud of it I framed it and hung it by our front door for the whole world to see who lived in this house! On the right he has drawn Daddy, then himself holding hands with me. Next to the tower of circles, with the very long legs, is Rosella. There is even a sky above us. This picture totally blew me away, but we didn’t see anything like it for a long time afterwards. Having a new person enter our family certainly made an impression on him, and this drawing also appeared just as Kaelan was passing out of a particularly trying (in my opinion!) period of his development, and into a much more peaceful and independent phase of his three-year-oldness.

After this astounding illustration of his own place in the world, Kaelan settled back into the elegant simplicity of his drawings, and following a more predictable pattern of development. There were a lot more ‘road maps’, and more spirals, but his spirals had changed form and they were very very small and tight, often fitting between the lines on writing paper. This excited me too, as this represents an early form of writing, and demonstrates very good fine motor skills. Here is an example of his spirals taking form of early writing:

We also began to see straight lines occuring, and crosses. Now, with Kaelan at 4 years of age, (this happens earlier for some children, around 3 years of age) we started seeing some new themes emerge. At first these crosses would appear on people (like bodies), or isolated, and then he would begin to join them up and began to draw dwelling-like shapes, such as these ones. They have a defined outer boundary and sectioned-off inner boundaries, like rooms. Sometimes he told me they were buildings, but in the next breath he would say they were something else entirely. So, clearly Kaelan was still not intentionally representing his experiences of life in his drawings, instead I feel his drawings were reflecting what was occuring for him internally. I was more interested not in what they represented visually, but what they might be an expression of: his inner development (back to the INCARNATING interpretation again).

With the idea of Incarnation in mind (coming into one’s own consciousness), the straight lines and crosses are symbolic of the child’s increasing consciousness of themselves as key players in their world. They are coming in to a sense of their own ‘uprightness’. In a sense, children who are drawing these themes are now aware that they are an individual in the world, no longer so connected to the ‘cosmos’ of infancy. These children are learning speech and making choices and becoming independent. They are learning about boundaries, and at this age we begin to see pictures with a blue line for sky and a green line for the grass, representing the boundaries of their world. You will see these themes emerge any time from about 3 years of age onwards.

Next the straight lines begin to converge into the centre of the page and we begin to see many ‘star’ and ‘sun’ shapes with straight lines leading into the centre of an object. This marks a great leap in development, the time when a child is very conscious of their own place in the world: they are beginning to ‘wake up’ and are showing the beginning of an awareness of their own thoughts and feelings. When I was teaching in kindy I would be amazed on some days that almost every child in the class would draw the same pictures. They would all begin to divide their pages into sections resembling a star. It took me a while to realise that while some children were imitating the theme from others, but they were all drawing stars and suns as a reflection of their own inner experiences.

Those that were more ‘centred’ in themselves (confident in their own abilities and aware of the power of their words and actions, well-developed language and listening skills, receptive to adult conversation and instruction) would have the straightest lines, the most conscise points of meeting in the middle, while the ones who were still drawing from imitation were either not ready yet, still in dreamy realm of the cosmos, or just beginning to enter this phase of awakening. Their star drawings were hesitant, and the lines not crossing in the centre, but still mostly straight up and down. It was a fascinating phenomenon.

You can imagine my excitement when I began to see these themes emerge in Kaelan’s drawings too. He was coming down from the stars.


In the star on the right hand side above, you will also see some branches and leaf shapes as part of the star. I will discuss this as part of my next post when I will talk about the development of the human form.

Interesting isn’t ?


Children’s Development in Drawings Part 1: 2 – 3.5 years

Kaelan just finished his Kindy years and as a parting gift his teachers prepared a book in which they had kept a selection of his drawings. It is absolutely fascinating to look through this collection of drawings and see his developing consciousness unfold as the year goes by. Using children’s drawings as a way to understand their development is a favourite subject of mine, and one I will write more about in the future I am sure. For now I would like to show you some of Kaelan’s drawings, both from his Kindy and ones that we have kept over the years. I will do it in parts, as I suspect all together an analysis of 3 years of drawings will be too long for a regular blog post!

Every child knows what he or she has drawn, even if it is just an expression of movement, rather than an image from their experience of life or imagination. It is impossible for any adult to look at a child’s drawing and say for certain what is going on within their minds and hearts. There is loads of research into understanding children’s emotional, physical and cognitive development from their drawings, each offering slightly different ways of interpreting the images. There is, however, a general consensus that each child moves through the same stages of drawing at relatively the same time of life. Just like learning speech and just like learning to walk, all children of all cultures move through the same phases of drawing.

Here is the general type of drawing for children 2-3 years: a scribble. These are Rosella’s scribbles (thankfully on the BACK of the paper that Kaelan had drawn a masterpiece on!). Rosella is currently 2 years and 3 months old.

Generally this is the way children first use drawing implements, and I believe it is partly due to the first hand-grip, which is with the pencil or crayon held firmly in the child’s fist, not allowing for a great detail of fine movement … but also because the child is not consciously aware of fine details at this age. Watching my children draw at this age, I could see that it was about the ACTION of the pencil, the movement in which the pencil becomes an extension of the child themselves. I have plenty of little scribbles on the walls and furniture of my house that attest to this. Little Rosella is quite pleased with the marks she has made in the world. This ties in with the general school of thought regarding this stage of drawing development: that young children who scribble are not actively attempting to recreate the world as they see it, but are experiencing the action and feeling of drawing, and delighting in the results they have made. Their drawing is a gesture.

In terms of interpretation, the field is open. There is another school of thought that the scribble represents the child’s connection to the cosmos, the spiraling energy of the world from which they came, and to which they are still very connected. I will call this INCARNATING INTERPRETATION, and will focus mainly on this school of thought throughout this post.

The scribble generally leads from the outside to the inside: significant of the child’s journey from experiencing the world as a whole entity, as a here-and-now universe and gradually learning to discern the details that bring them joy in the world. Joan Salter writes on this subject in The Incarnating Child:

Here we are in the realm of the revolving planets. It is a cosmic picture, clearly revealing the young child’s experience of ‘coming in’. [Hanns] Strauss shows these forms to be typical of children under three years – that is, before there has developed a clear awareness of their own ‘I-ness’. To begin with, there is still a oneness with the infinite, while at the same time, a seeking to come in, to find a centre on the earth.

Leading on from scribbles. Kaelan’s next form of drawing was to use the pencil not as an extension of his body, but as something that told a story through movement. Frequently it was a car or a truck, and the pencil lines he created were a map of the journey he took:

(My apologies for the fuzzy photography. I will try to take better photos later, but am too interested in this post to do it now!)

These drawings were accompanied by many sound effects and often were very enjoyable and very  intricate. 

The next form of drawing that occurs is the straight line, and the cross, which I will discuss in another post.