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Teaching Children to Draw

Stages of Development: Should We Interfere?


child's house drawing -3 yo

A formulaic representation of a house by a 3-year-old.

H South

Wary of inhibiting their creativity, we tend to avoid teaching drawing to children. But they are receiving input from all around them, and want to learn to draw. Why let them flounder when we can provide positive models? So how do we approach teaching of drawing to children? It depends on what stage of development they are at, and of course, every child is different.

A First Visual Language
From picture-books toddlers learn that shapes have names and represent objects. They begin to label familiar shapes found in their scribbles, then begin to use simple shapes to construct simple objects, especially faces.

The Visual System Expands
As children get older, they add detail and complexity to their drawings. Faces attach to bodies, and ways are found to represent more objects. At around age 5, depending on the child, a sense of pattern emerges, with houses, trees and families telling familiar stories, and the symbol-library does its job well.

Discovering Limitations
Problems begin at about age 10, when reality and appearances become important. The rocket taking off or the beautiful dress or the horse don't look right - the symbolic language no longer works. Some children become obsessed with drawing fine details at this stage, some will do a great deal of drawing in an attempt to get it right, and most will give up in disgust.

Handle with Care
Drawings represent the child's experience of the world. We must be careful not to invalidate this by the way we respond. Inappropriate responses may include imposing our narratives - our stories or ideas - on the drawing, for example "Oh, that's a nice dog. Oh, it's a horse? Well it looks like a dog..."; criticism of lack of realism, and unrealistic expectations - have you noticed how we always expect children to draw from memory even things which they may be quite unfamiliar with? - and importantly for older children, criticism of realism, when we label their awkward attempts at realistic detail as 'tightness' and lament the loss of childish naivite.

Of course we fear that we might inhibit a child's natural creativity, but it is important to remember that if children are not taught to draw, their creativity will die a natural death. Art skills - drawing, painting, sculpting what you see - can and should be taught to children. You have to know the rules before you can break them: no-one would suggest that you can play great music without years of music lessons, but somehow they don't apply the same logic to art.

Page 2: find out how to help your child with art.

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