Susan Striker on the Developmental Stages of Children’s Drawing

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I interviewed art education expert Susan Striker to answer some of the questions we all have about the scribbling and drawing that our young children do. (Note, readers have a chance to win a copy of Susan's book, Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation for Art at the end of the interview.)

Jean: Susan, as you know, I'm a big fan of your books, especially Young at Art and Please Touch.

Young at Art  Please Touch

I've also told you a little bit about our Toddler Art Group. Well, now I have started a blog called The Artful Parent and I would like to ask you a few questions about doing art with young children on behalf of myself and my readers. I know that you have years of experience introducing children to art at your private art school, Young at Art, with your own child, and through teaching art in the public school system.

Okay, so first of all, I have a question about when young children begin to move away from completely abstract scribbles and begin to draw realistic figures. When and why does this happen? Is this a completely internal process or do outside factors influence the progression?

Susan Striker: All children develop in a predictable way. Just as children kick before they crawl and crawl before they walk, so too all children will taste a crayon before they scribble and go through several years of progressing through the scribble stage before they begin to depict realistic objects. Just as there is no need to "teach" a child how to walk, there is also no need to teach drawing. Any coaching that you do should reflect the child's natural development, not rush them through each stage until they get to the stage you are able to appreciate.

Children develop with a powerful, intuitive motivation. They are driven to draw and paint naturally. It does help to accept and encourage the child's natural development. Most parents clap and cheer when their children take those very first steps. They need to do the same for those very first attempts at drawing. It is imperitive that parents understand what age-appropriate drawings actually look like, as opposed to how they would like their child's early drawings to look.

If you really look at a scribble, you will find literally hundreds of ways to nurture your child, support development and improve vocabulary."Oh look! You made a horizontal line," My goodness, I gave you only one red crayon but you made both light and dark red lines. How did you do that? Aren't you smart!" I see one short red line and one long red line. Good job!" "I see a diagonal line crossing over a vertical line. You sure must have talent to do that!" "You have a long line here and a short line here" "The blue line is on top of the yellow line. I think I see some green. How on earth did you make green all by yourself? That was very smart of you to know that blue and yellow make green!" All of these comments validate your child's work and give a child an understanding of, and rich vocabulary for, what he or she is doing intuitively. If you say "That is very pretty", you are not being at all helpful. What makes it pretty? If you say, "the dark lines on the light paper have a lot of contrast, that is pretty," you are being more helpful. "Pretty," however, is not the important aspect of children's art.

The PROCESS of creating art is far more important than the final PRODUCT. Children think and solve problems as they draw. Critical thinking skills develop from that kind of activity. There is no more important skill to encourage as your child grows up than the ability to think. Children will move out of the scribbling stage and draw realistically, not because of encouragement from adults, but because that represents normal development.

Jean: Can you tell us why you discourage parents from finding and naming objects in their young children's drawings?

Susan Striker: The scribbles children do contain all of the lines and shapes needed later on to decode and write. You want to encourage your child to continue exploring horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curved lines because those very lines are the foundation of all drawings and every letter of the alphabet. If you find a shape that looks like a snake in a drawing and that pleases you, the child will be thoroughly confused when you say it, since that was not his or her intent. It is far more helpful to say things like. "Look at that long, thin line you made. Lots of things I can think of are as long as your line. Trains are long, snakes are long, Grandma's hair is very long". I think that parents really want to find something recognizable in a drawing because they can then understand the art. I feel very strongly that parents have an obligation to learn about early scribbles and understand this important aspect of their child's development.

(Note, click here to see Susan Strikers 10 Cardinal Rules for Teaching Creative Art.)

Jean: If you read my blog post When Will My Child Begin to Draw Realistic Images?, you'll see that I'm grappling with the question of why we shouldn't urge our children to begin drawing realistic figures when we do encourage (and even coach) them to do everything else, including crawling, walking, and talking. Can you tell us the reasoning behind this?

Susan Striker: No responsible parent would expect their six-month-old child to walk. We certainly understand that a six month old is not ready to walk and would be harmed by being forced to do so. We would never make a child feel like a failure for not being able to walk at six months. Scribbling is quite the same. Expecting a child in the scribbling stage of development to draw a realistic picture is inappropriate and harmful. If we encourage children to do things they are not ready to do we harm them. We interfere with the physical development and we make a child worry about not being good enough to please Mom and Dad. After four and a half years of scribbling, children begin to connect the ends of their lines to create shapes. Then they make lines radiating out of shapes, then they draw humans, usually based on the shapes and radiating lines rather than what they already know about what humans look like. This last stage of scribbling development is important in two ways. It signifies that a child is now ready to draw pictures of recognizable things and is also ready to begin to decode and read. Here's an illustration showing the drawing developmental stages a young child goes through, from page 54 of Young at Art:

Strikers drawing development

Jean: How important are the words we use when we talk about our young children's art? How do you suggest we talk with them about their art?

Susan Striker: Help every art activity become a growth experience for your child. Really look at the art before you speak about it. As you speak, describe the work the child did or is doing. Forget "pretty" and "beautiful," and use useful words like "Thin, fat, long, short, dark, light, horizontal, vertical. " Show that you value the PROCESS over the PRODUCT. "My, but you worked hard on that picture.

Jean: Any final thoughts or suggestions for Artful Parent readers?

Susan Striker: Most of us suffered as children from ignorance in the education system about the significance of art in child development. Our parents and teachers gave us coloring books, so that we could produce the realistic pictures they thought we should be making. As a parent, you have an obligation to your child to do a better job than that. You don't have to be a doctor to look after your child's health and you don't need to be an artist to help your child develop into a healthy adult who has learned how to think critically and solve problems. Actively participating in age-appropriate art activities is the most effective and enjoyable way to develop these important skills. Throw out those coloring books and stencils. Let your child be a child and develop the way nature intended.

Jean: Thank you, Susan, for sharing your expertise with us! If you'd like to learn more about Susan Striker or her books, you can visit her website, www.susanstriker.com. If you would like to win a copy of Susan's book, Young at Art, post a comment before Wednesday, February 6th, midnight, Eastern Standard Time. Winner will be chosen in a random drawing and notified by e-mail.

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Comments

  1. Cheri says

    i just started really getting into art with my son, so this would be great inspiration:) hope i win!!

  2. mel says

    Yes yes yes! Thank you for the work put into making this interview happen… so many valuable nuggets of information.

  3. says

    I find it interesting that none of my three children would color in a coloring book. They prefer paper on clipboard and pencils. Sometimes they use crayons, markers, or colored pencils but mainly grab the pencils.
    I used to wonder if they should color more but now I’ll keep going with my instincts and let them do their own thing.
    Thank you for this interview.

  4. Cindi Hoppes says

    What a fascinating interview. Thanks for the insights! Please enter me in your giveaway drawing. Thanks,Cindi

  5. Sarah says

    OH I would love this book! My husband and I love art and would love to pass that “gene” onto our daughter! *crosses fingers* We’ll see. :) We love to encourage her to color with the crayons and not eat them… so that’s the stage we’re at right now! :D

  6. Maggie says

    This is great! My only son is 6 months old. I never had much exposure to art/drawing etc. as a child and I want him to have a lot more exposure. Reading about the developmental stages would be very interesting.

  7. Carrie says

    Wow – this information is so useful for me! I have 3 children all at various stages of artistic expression and could use this!

  8. says

    This looks like a terrific book. My husband is an artist but I am only moderately creative, so I’d love to learn ways to foster creativity in our kids…

  9. Shari says

    Wow, I am so happy I stumbled on your blog! My little girl (20 months) is totally into scribbling and I love it. I know I won’t be encouraging her realistic drawings since I am an abstract artist myself! ;-) But as an art dealer as well she’s surrounded by art and I would love to read about the ways to bring her up with art. Thanks for a wonderful giveaway!
    sharibrownfield(at)gmail(dot)com

  10. says

  11. Patti says

    My husband and I both work in the arts community, this book would be a happy edition to our family and our two budding artists!

  12. says

    Wow, I really want a copy of this book! Please enter me… I have an almost 6 yr old daughter and a19 month old son. I would love to find out more about how to help them be creative! Em
    (emandmikeyATaolDOTcom)

  13. says

    It’s so great to hear from all of you! I wish had books for everyone. It’s definitely a book worth buying or checking out of the library (in case you don’t win). -Jean

  14. says

    I am happy that a friend sent me a link to your blog. My 8 y.o. has grown up in my studio – he thinks of it as his studio – it will be interesting to talk about the ideas here with him. Thanks!
    -Rick

  15. catmom says

    Your Mothering article that included this book inspired our group of toddler artists. We’d love a copy to pass around.

  16. Kira says

    This sounds like a terrific book. I have struggled with knowing that “Pretty!” isn’t the right kind of comment to make, but not knowing how else to talk about my son’s art. He is just starting to get into painting (just turned 2), so this book would be a great resource for us! I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
    For others interested in this subject, Wonder Time magazine had an article about kids’ art a couple of months ago as well.

  17. Sri says

    This is a great interview. I have a 14 month old son who is just learning to hold a crayon and make patterns with it. This will be a great book to help guide him in his artful pursuits.

  18. says

    Love the blog and this interview. My daughter and I just spent all morning working on different art projects thanks to the inspiration to be artistic that you provide here!

  19. says

    I love the suggestions and am glad to be reading them while my son is still so young….I’m looking forward to being an artful mom!

  20. Felis says

    Hi!
    Thanks for highlighting this author! I’m adding her to my list of “how to homeschool” the right way. :-)

  21. Katrina says

    Wow, this was fascinating information! I am not artistic by nature – both my husband and I are engineers, but we try to introduce our young children to a variety of interests. It is hard to encourage things which you don’t fully understand or appreciate, but this book seems the key to really help me encourage artistic expression in both my children. I will start implementing these suggestions when I look at my almost 4-year-old son’s art work today!
    Thank you for the great interview. I was sent here by ZRecs and can’t wait to read more from this blog.

  22. says

    I am really interested in reading more about art being the process then the product for children. I have read another book on the subject and loved it…would love to win!
    Thanks for the interview.

  23. shimmala says

    I’m the first one to say I don’t always know what I’m doing when it comes to teaching my kids things, so I am open and welcoming to any and all advice! Would love to win and read this book!

  24. Sylvia says

    Awesome! I finished a grad program in Expressive Arts Therapy last year and this way of being w/children is exactly what we work towards- process, not product! Plus my 8 month old son agrees! ;) I’d love to win this book… (Also sent by zrecs)

  25. Jennie says

    I love this post. I was one of those kids who was squelched by the art system in our school. It’s great to reinforce what I already knew and am trying to teach my child. I do use the words “pretty/beautiful” a lot. I will try to incorporate some of the terminology discussed here.
    Thanks,
    Jennie

  26. says

    I’ve been following your blog for a short while now, and LOVE it! I would really love to start something like this, but I’ll have to wait until I have a space of my own to use for it. (Instead of living in in-laws basements.)
    I checked out Susan’s stuff, and immediately fell in love with her work as well.

  27. taryn237 says

    I am sooooo excited to see your blog. I really want to start a toddler art group but am overwhelmed at the messy factor in our small home. I think I might just have to bite the bullet.

  28. dawn says

    This sounds great! Thanks for the tips. I have 2 little artists at home and would love to read the book. I am always on the lookout for new ideas!

  29. Cecily T says

    I love the 10 commandments…I’m not sure I agree with never giving them a coloring book, b/c I see value in kids not getting hung up on forming something nice in order to experiment with color, a problem I had as a child. My grandfather (an artist) drew things for me to color, but when I’d try to replicate a drawing and couldn’t, then I was stuck for something to color. I still enjoy those mosaic/mandala coloring books, and I’ve used them to make my own.
    On another note with the 10 commandments, my grandfather did often draw on my art. I asked him to, to show me what I did ‘wrong,’ but secretly I always wanted him to tell me that it was perfect the way it was.
    My DD is only 7 months old, and I’m just joining my local MOMS group now, but the toddler art group sounds really neat.

  30. tammy b says

    wow i’ve just found your site and must tell you how fantastic it is! thanks for the chance to win what looks like an amazing book.

  31. Mary Avinger says

    My little one is too young for drawing at those point, but it is always good to be prepared. Thanks for the chance to win this book.

  32. Bobbi says

    Thanks for this interview and the tips. I struggle with what to say to my son Henry about his art, aside from “Wow, I like that. I like how you used the red and put it all over the paper…” After reading this post, I realize I need to try to do better and also to actually spend more time talking to him about what he has created and how he did it.
    Henry (almost 3) sometimes asks me or his dad to draw a firetruck for him, or some other realistic figure, on his chalkboard or magnadoodle or paper. He says he can’t do it himself, and seems to enjoy watching us draw such figures, and occasionally appears frustrated that he can’t do it himself. Sometimes he will draw a scribbly picture and tell us what it is, even though I try never to ask him “what is that?”
    Any ideas how I can encourage him to keep drawing the scribbly pictures that are appropriate for his age and not feel drawing figures are important just yet?
    Also, is there ever a good age to show him how to draw certain shapes — like circles or triangles — or should he figure this out on his own as a natural part of his development? Is it that different from showing him how to make an H or other letters of his name?

  33. says

    I agree with you on art. My mother is an artist, and I remember sitting next to her from a very young age, drawing with pencils and then moving on to watercolors. She never commented on how pretty or nice my art was, but rather pointed out all the white space that needed coloring/filling in.

  34. Kristin says

    This looks like a book I will thoroughly enjoy…I hope many parents will read this book too. I love the aspect of changing the way we praise our children. When I taught elementary school, I took classes on “Responsive Classroom”, which focused on these ideas….process over product, meaningful praise, child initiated projects, etc. These are great ideas for parents to use in the home as well!

  35. says

    Wow, what a great interview! My son has just started scribbling and I’ve been thinking about starting a toddler art group. I can’t wait to check out more of your blog as well as her books. I’m glad I found you through Prizey.

  36. Lindsey says

    My son likes to color, but I haven’t put much thought into how I respond to it, other than that I also intuitively avoid trying to make him draw realistically. I would love to read more on this topic.

  37. Diana says

    After reading this interview, I’m happier than ever that my son prefers blank paper to coloring books. Nice to hear we’ve been doing something right– I’d love to win and get the whole picture…

  38. kelli says

    I’d love to win. I’m a parent at a co-op preschool and we’re always looking for great ideas.

  39. choochoo428 says

    This would be a great book for this house. My little one seems to have a knack for all things creative, so I want to make sure I have this as a reference. Thanks!

  40. Lisa says

    I love finding new ways to look at things and as a new parent, I’ve been trying to seek out new ways of stimulating my daughter. Working in art conservation, I’ve gotten away from creating myself- and this is something I want to share with her.

  41. Joe says

    I’m so glad prizey.net led me to you. I think the idea of using comments that describe the process of my young child’s artwork, vs the resulting opinion is an excellent idea!

  42. Barbara Baker says

    I would be so happy to win something of this callabor. My children are always drawing and painting and this would be great for me to read and understanding more about the commenting when it comes to their questions about what they do!!! This book would be a great help to me.

  43. Terri Fisher says

    Thanks for such an intriguing article…as an elementary teacher and parent of young children, it really resonated with me. The developmental stages of drawing really coordinate with writing, and are so important for parents to understand. Let the scribbling commence! :)

  44. Adrienne says

    Would love to have this book. My 3 year old loves to draw and my 13-month old likes to get ahold of the chalk and make marks on the chalkboard. I’m always looking for ways to encourage their creativity.

  45. ALHASSAN HAMZA says

    Iam an art student in the UNIVERSITY OF EDUCATION,WINNEBA. GHANA.
    This site has helped me a lot in learning of child art. I wish more of information will be guided for the benefits of art students all over the world.THANK YOU.

  46. says

    Fascinating post! My little guy is 4 and half and bringing home loads of work lately. I’ve always hesitated to label his work as “beautiful” or “well done” or whatever. It seems to me that his efforts and the pleasure he gets from doing it are paramount. And I would like him to be creative because he’s driven to do it, not because he wants my approval. Having said that, a lot of the time I’m taken a back by their beauty. And sometimes I just don’t know what else to say. This article is immensely helpful. Thank you. Thank you.