Why Do Kids Stop Drawing?
Why do kids stop drawing? Associate Professor Misty Adoniou makes a convincing case for a world where drawing doesn’t stop at childhood.
There is something wonderful about children’s first drawings and paintings. Their colourful simplicity brings smiles as they take pride of place on fridge doors and bedroom walls.
All three of my children were prolific drawers. One still is. She is a tattoo artist known for her detailed fine-line work. She is never without some kind of drawing implement in her hand! The other two followed very different career paths, but I notice they still like to doodle. It seems to concentrate their minds as they seek to solve work-related issues. As a primary school teacher, I had anecdotally observed the learning benefits of drawing in my classrooms. So, when I moved into teacher education I decided to research children’s drawings and their role in a child’s education.
Why do children draw and what are they learning through the process?
It turns out there is a lot going on behind those simple lines and shapes. Children’s drawings offer us a peek into how our children are beginning to make sense of the world around them. They are also an important step into writing.
Drawing and writing emerge from the same starting place: children’s scribbles. Scribbles are the beginning of a child’s understanding that they can make a mark on the world—both literally and figuratively. Their desire to make a mark often manifests in inconvenient ways, from pen scribbles on the lounge to crayon on the walls. So, find supplies of butcher’s paper, crayons, blackboards and outdoor chalks to save the furniture and let your child scribble, because there’s a lot of valuable learning going on in those scribbles.
Very young children first make straight-line scribbles, back and forth, over and over. They are discovering that they can make changes in the world around them. It’s the same kind of realisation they have when they see that dropping their spoon on the floor makes someone pick it up. So they keep dropping the spoon. It is a heady kind of power!
Their straight-line scribbles soon evolve into circular ones. And eventually they learn to join these circular scribbles to make individual closed-circle shapes.
This is a big developmental moment.
Being able to draw enclosed shapes means they can now draw representations of objects that other people recognise. A circle becomes Mummy. Lines radiate out from the circle for arms and legs and hair. Dots inside the circle represent eyes. The enthusiastic responses of those around them encourage your child to do more of these drawings. “Is that Mummy? And where is your baby sister? And Nanna and Pop? Where are Nanna’s glasses? Where is Daddy’s beard?”
This talk about the drawings is very important. It shows children that their marks can be ‘read’—that they mean something to someone else. Now they aren’t just making marks on the world, they are sharing meanings with other people—the very essence of human relationships. And this is the beginning of writing, too. Two very important developmental milestones have now been reached that need to be in place for children to learn to write. First, being able to draw enclosed shapes means they can now also write the letters of the alphabet. Second, they understand that marks can mean something and be understood by other people.
Drawing continues to develop as children start ‘big school’. Now they begin to draw ‘schema’ to represent objects. These are symbols like the yellow circle sun with lines radiating from it, the square two-storey house with the triangle roof and chimney, and the girl with the circle head and triangle dress.
Children use these symbols even though they don’t look anything like their own houses or selves. They are like the emojis we attach to our text messages: just a visual symbol we know others will understand, not a life-like depiction.
Most children are still happy drawers in their early years of schooling.
They revel in the creative expression and uninhibited by adult notions of the ‘right’ colour or size. Supply them with lots of different paints, pencils, crayons and markers and they will happily explore the world around them through drawing.
Around about nine years of age, we see a shift in children’s attitudes to their own drawings and their willingness to draw. This is partly due to their own growing self-consciousness, and partly because drawing becomes less valued in schools and in their home environments.
Children begin to see their drawings through the eyes of the adults around them. They want things to look ‘real’.
They begin to pay much more attention to the real-life objects they want to draw, and their drawings become more detailed. Many become more self-conscious and self-critical as they struggle to make their drawings look like the objects they represent. They spend more time rubbing out than drawing. Discouraged, some children decide that drawing is not for them and give up on it altogether.
Most adults who are convinced they are terrible drawers made this judgement right about this stage in late primary school.
This is such a shame because drawing remains the same powerful means of communication and self-expression at fourteen, forty or ninety-four that it was for the uninhibited four-year-old. But as children move through primary school, writing muscles out drawing. Drawing just becomes the thing you do to decorate your writing—if you have time.
The assumption seems to be that drawing is a bit of a time-waster, a distraction from the more important work of writing.
It is true that children in Australia sit a writing test each year for NAPLAN, and not a drawing test. But it would be a sad education system and a socially and culturally bereft society that only bothered to teach things that can be tested.
Everyone gets better at drawing with practice and with instruction.
We teach children to write by giving them the basic skills and reading them books so they can hear what good writing sounds like. We can do the same with drawing. By the time children are ten they are able to learn basic skills of perspective, linework and shading—and they can enjoy the work of artists, looking closely at how good drawers draw. Visits to galleries and watching artists at work are excellent learning activities. Not everyone will become Leonardo da Vinci or Picasso, but not everyone will become Shakespeare yet we still teach writing—because we know it is a crucial communication and expression tool that everyone should have.
Drawings serve many purposes.
They can be self-expressions, putting out into the world the things that are swirling around in the mind. They can be attempts to reproduce what we see around us in order to better understand it. Drawings can communicate ideas and thoughts to other people when words are hard to find. And, they can be an effective ‘rehearsal’ for writing and speaking, allowing us to think through ideas before putting them into words.
Sometimes they are concrete manifestations of play, as children simultaneously tell themselves stories and act them out as they draw them. When you observe a child in this kind of play you are watching a superb piece of human learning, where all the learning modes we have at our disposal are being used simultaneously by the child as they talk, act and draw.
When asked the question “Doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?”, renowned American poet and artist E.E. Cummings replied: “On the contrary, they love each other.”
There are many learning benefits when children’s writing and children’s drawings are indeed allowed to ‘love each other’. And a perfect starting place would be if we all learnt to love children’s drawings beyond those first colourful preschool creations that we display so proudly on the kitchen fridge.