Drawing for Kids :: How to Encourage Creativity, Skills and Confidence

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How to Encourage Drawing Skills Confidence and Creativity in Young Children

Dena asked this question on my blog the other day:

I can’t draw very well, and really don’t want [my daughter] to take after me, would you suggest an art class as a good idea for a 3 year old? There are a few in my area that look fun.

My short answer?

No. I wouldn’t send your three year old to an art class to learn how to draw.

(Note: There are other reasons for which you might choose to take your young child to an art class, and I will get to those in a minute.)

I also have a longer answer which addresses the four issues I see in this question: whether to teach drawing skills to a 3 year old, whether to take your 3 year old to an art class, lack of drawing skills and possibly creative confidence on the parent’s part, and worry about transferring that lack of drawing skill, and possibly confidence, to her child.

Drawing for Kids

First, drawing skills and creative confidence in young children….

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There is a lot that goes into drawing ability. Self confidence is one of them. Believing that you can draw as well as enjoying the act of drawing are as important – no, MORE important – than technical drawing skills. I really believe that.

My first and most important suggestion is to help your daughter hold on to her self confidence (in art specifically, but also in herself in general) and her enjoyment of art.

How? Here are some ideas:

1. Don’t ever denigrate yourself or your own drawing abilities.

Show her that you have confidence in yourself and are at peace with your abilities (fake it ‘til you make it, baby).

If you sit down and draw and doodle beside her (and I think you should at least once in a while!), don’t say, “I can’t draw.” If you don’t feel like you can draw a realistic elephant, that’s okay! Realism is overrated! Or, if you don’t think so, pretend you do for a little while. Draw a completely abstract elephant in bright colors. Or just draw abstract, period. Doodle squares, circles, spirals, hash marks, letters, and whatever else you think of across the page. Enjoy the process. Keep your pen moving. Perhaps try for a design or a mandala. Whatever. But don’t utter the words, “I can’t draw” in front of your child. Children learn by example.

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2. Be conscious of how you talk to your child about the art she makes.

Don’t just say, “that’s pretty,” but talk about the marks she is making on the page or the colors she is using or say, “Wow! You really worked hard on that!” My default is to ask children to tell me about their artwork. If your child is a young three, she might not be assigning meaning to her art yet (or then again, she might be), but as she gets closer to four, she will likely be more and more elaborate with the stories that go along with her art.

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3. Make art fun and exploratory.

Keep your child’s art activities as process oriented as possible at this age. Try not to expect particular outcomes but rather encourage her to explore the art materials (paints, crayons, shaving cream, etc), ideas (big/small, themes from her life, similar and contrasting colors), and techniques (watercolor resist, splatter painting, shaving cream marbling) in her own way. Introduce new materials and techniques, but also stand back and let her explore art on her own in her own way.

Besides giving her freedom to explore during projects that you set up for her, try to have some art materials accessible for her to use any time she likes. This could be an art caddy with markers, crayons, scissors and tape near the kitchen table or it could be her own little dedicated art space with a table or easel and a wider range of children’s art supplies.

4. Keep your art activities appropriate for her age and developmental stage.

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I don’t think that teaching a child “how to draw” is appropriate at age three. You can guide her through the occasional observational drawing exercise if you like, preferably in a way that is as much about observing as it is about drawing. But the most important thing at this age is to encourage open-ended exploration of art materials, self-confidence, and enjoyment in art and learning.

Drawing for Kids - How to Encourage Confidence and Creativity in Young Children

Let her go through the normal developmental stages in drawing and art at her own pace.

If, when she’s older, she expresses an interest in drawing things a certain way or learning drawing techniques, you can consider a drawing class, a book for you, or a book for her. But I wouldn’t do that now.

By the way, along with keeping art process oriented and age appropriate, I would suggest that you avoid coloring books and tracing/coloring-in activities as much as possible. Their emphasis on adult-drawn images and coloring inside the lines is not helpful to a young child’s burgeoning creativity. You don’t have to be militant about it (we’ve used them from time to time when Maia has received them as gifts, but I don’t buy them myself and generally don’t keep the gift coloring books around too long), but don’t make coloring books a regular part of your life. I’ve written more about coloring books over at Babble (and received some strongly-worded comments for it!) if you’re interested.

What about art lessons and art classes for young children?

I said that I don’t think you should send your 3 year old to an art class to learn “how to draw.” However, an art class for young children may be a good idea for other reasons.

  1. It might provide you with ideas and instructions for more art activities to do with your daughter at home.
  2. It might expose your child to more materials and activities than she has at home.
  3. You and your child might enjoy the social aspect of the art class.
  4. The art class might provide messy art experiences that you might not feel comfortable providing at home.

If you want to try an art class with your young child, I would suggest looking for one that is focused on age appropriate, process-oriented art. See Julie Liddle’s Art in Hand program for an example of an ideal art program for toddlers and preschoolers.

Would you like to improve your own drawing skills?

If you’d like to learn how to draw better or more confidently, consider taking that drawing class yourself (well, one for adults anyway). There are classes oriented toward all levels of drawing ability. And I have heard good things about the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. There are some pretty dramatic examples of drawings done by adults before and after they went through the exercises in the book or took the class.

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To recap, my suggestion is to focus on process-oriented art for your 3 year old, build her self-confidence, keep art fun, and don’t ever let her hear you say, “I can’t draw.” If you choose an art class for your child, do it for the right reasons and make sure the class is appropriate for her age and her developmental stage.

Dena – Does this answer your question? Does it bring up any others for you?

Everyone else – What do you think? Do you agree with my advice or would you suggest something else for Dena (or someone else in her situation)? What do you think about teaching a 3 year old drawing skills?

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Drawing for Kids - How to Encourage Confidence and Creativity in Young Children

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  1. says

    What a great post – thanks so much for this one, I will be sahring it on my FB page & tweeting it far & wide. I will also share with my new parents in September. Nothing makes me sadder than a 3 or 4 year old saying ‘I can’t draw’ because they have been given unrealsitic expectations of how things should look. Thanks again for this post.

  2. says

    I AGREE! This is great advice. Also, I took an art class that used the “drawing from the right side of the brain,” book- it WAS an excellent framework. You are spot on! : )

  3. says

    Agree! Check out those toddler art classes carefully, as you said–I’ve found around here, anyway, the ones I’ve found are craft classes trying to masquerade as art classes–very product oriented. I suspect (but am not sure) that’s because either parents expect their children to produce a “thing” and the class providers are trying to please the paying customer, or the class providers *think* the parents expect a product from the class. I haven’t been able to parse it out. I think the ideal toddler/preschool art class is child & parent together, so the instructor can model for parents who may be unsure how to explore art alongside their children.

  4. says

    Brilliant in every way! People are too hung up about getting art ‘right’: it should be about having FUN!! Especially f you’re three!!! Get messy – get crazy – enjoy it!!!!! :-)

  5. says

    Totally agree..Parents need to change their mindset about art. Im from India and I take art lessons,similar to your principles, for kids and I thoroughly enjoy the process. Its amazing to listen to children create stories out of their art work.

  6. Erica says

    My brother-in-law, who is an artist had some advice for my four year old son, who was getting very frustrated trying to draw a rocket. He said that every drawing, even one you don’t like, is a good drawing. If it isn’t quite right, then it is good because you learned something from it. And even if you think it isn’t any good, someone else may like it or, in the future, you may see something in it you didn’t see before. Before having kids, I had never given the tension between art and craft or between process and scripted art any thought. Now, we do things very much like you have described above and I am amazed at the results. Watching them create is such a delight.

  7. Carly says

    My struggle right now is that my five year old is drawing pictures and my three year old (almost four) doesn’t want to draw because, as he says, he can’t draw pictures as well as his sister. I tell him how much I love his art, how she has two more years of practice and that he has to continue drawing so he’ll learn how to draw people/houses/flowers/etc. My heart breaks for him because he tries so hard to be like his big sis.
    If anyone has any other brilliant suggestions for things to tell him when he’s feeling discouraged, please share!

  8. rachel says

    this post sums up much of what i’ve learned from you over the yrs! thx for putting this together… very helpful.

  9. Dena says

    Hi Jean,
    Wow, thank you!! I feel really good right now because I am doing 100% of what you said!! I have never done coloring books……….only paper and art supplies which now she freely grabs herself! She scribbles and draws everything and anything, none of it really looks like anything, but it does to her, which I love and encourage.
    I never say anything bad about my own abilities, but have been curious because she asks me to draw this or that for her. Sometimes I do and sometimes I tell her to draw it. When she asks me, I try to change it up and draw things differently, never drawing the sun quite the same way, etc. But, my drawing in general is terrible! So, maybe I am the one who should take an art class.
    I know I just need to relax and remember that if she is enjoying it, that’s all that matters.
    Thanks for answering my question so thoughtfully!

  10. Naamah Neth says

    Sadly, sometimes a child in my class says this too. I always take them to the pencils/crayons and paper, tell them to pick one up and make a mark on the paper with it. “there you go. You made a mark, you can draw.” after all, that is what drawing is. I always find it helpful to dictate the drawing to my daughter when she asks me to draw for her. “Here is the elephant’s head, and he has two BIG ears, and a trunk. I wonder how many eyes he has.” etc etc
    Kids don’t care about the end product. Adults do.
    I always had the Can’t Draw mentality too once upon a time. At university I took an art class and we drew an enlarged version of a self portrait by Van Gogh.. I think it was a drawing from the right side of the brain activity but can’t remember exactly. We had to draw it upside down. When I turned mine up the right way I was amazed at what I had done. The idea was to remove from your head what you thought the image SHOULD look like and focus on line /shape. It totally reformed my attitude to drawing and my own ability!

  11. says

    Dena, I’m so glad you felt that this was helpful and that it affirms what you already do with your daughter!
    Susan Striker (author of Young at Art) has some interesting ideas for what to do when your child asks you to draw for them. You might like to try them sometime… http://www.artfulparent.com/2008/02/what-if-your-child-wants-you-to-draw-for-them.html
    Btw, Dena, you are totally right about he red liquid watercolors. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before, but they do dry pink!

  12. says

    Oh, Carly, I hope someone else has some great ideas to share for you, because I don’t have any big answers. That’s a tough situation.
    Have you read “Ish” by Peter Reynolds? It’s an illustrated children’s book about that same situation. It might help your son.
    Another idea — perhaps take the focus off of drawing as much as you can for a while. Perhaps offer projects like splatter painting, collage, shaving cream painting, sculpture, playdough, etc to put the focus on abstract art and process art for a while and off of drawing skills. And, maybe have other three year olds over for art playdates so he’s making art with others at his level.

  13. says

    I know! I love listening to the stories, too! Maia doesn’t tell them as much anymore, but I’m looking forward to when Daphne gets to the storytelling stage.

  14. mfm says

    I agree completely with your post! This really sums up a philosophy of preschool art that needs to be understood more widely.

  15. Carly says

    I love “Ish”. It, along with some simple art supplies (construction paper, markers, scissors, glue, watercolours), is a standard birthday present for little friends. That said, we don’t own a copy. Perhaps that should be a present for Ben’s birthday next month.
    I like the idea of moving away from drawing with him. He enjoys watercolours and abstract painting so I’ll focus on that right now.
    Thanks for the ideas!

  16. Robyn says

    Great post! I see this philosophy in action everyday during the school year as a director/teacher of a high school ran preschool. At our school the preschool students are community member children, not high school student children. The “big” kids do like the few color books they can find in the classroom as I think it makes them feel young again. The preschool students prefer the bin of paper, colored scrap paper, markers, pencils, crayons, watercolors, paint, glue, yarn, scissors and more to create wonderful masterpieces to be hung up on the walls or taken home. Asking about the creation is the best! The stories behind the art are so much fun to hear! ps I shared on your post about color books too!

  17. Karah says

    Thanks for posting this. Your first suggestion (“Don’t denigrate your own drawing ability”) is equally applicable to music, particularly singing, for young children. I can’t tell you how many of my students assume they can’t sing well because they overheard a parent, jokingly or seriously, trash their own singing ability. It fosters fear, not confidence. To your readers: please don’t denigrate your own singing either!

  18. says

    I’m a little behind the eight-ball here with all that’s been going on in my life, and not keeping up as much as usual with blog-reading, or blog-writing, for that matter this summer. For the first time in weeks, I took a peek at my ART IN HAND page stats, and I noticed an enourmous spike which really took me by surprise, since I haven’t posted anything in weeks, soon to be months, it seems. A little sleuthing led me to this post. Thanks so much for the huge mention! Wow. And great, thorough response to Dena’s question. Couldn’t have said it better myself. :)

  19. says

    I agree 100%…any kind of art activity with media where your son won’t have a certain idea in his head about what it means to be successful with that medium or to get it right. In addition to painting (a great idea and try it with a variety of tools, and on a variety of surfaces), I would encourage you to also think 3-d. Often boys who don’t feel confident in their abilities as 2-D artists, really come alive when given the opportunity to create/build with 3-D materials. SAve up cardbaord tubes, packing materials, small boxes, cups, and containers. Add some pipecleaners, masking tape, tin foil, adn let him go to town! Or, give him a big cardboard box, and see what ideas he comes up with for that.

  20. says

    Alicia – I see that, too, sometimes. I think the best thing you can do in that situation is just show by example. And maybe say something lighthearted about letting the 2yo do it her own way. Although you may be right about it not being taken well. It sounds like that mom needed her own craft to work on so she could get the eyes “right” on her own and not worry so much about where her toddler put hers.

  21. says

    Oh, Karah! I know you are totally right, but I’m having a hard time not saying something about my own singing right now in this comment! I do sing all the time, though (to my daughters), and don’t say I can’t sing in front of them.

  22. says

    Have you read “The Dot” by Peter Reynolds? It sounds like the situation you have sometimes in your class (and you sound like the wonderful teacher in the book). :)

  23. says

    What do you do with a perfectionist 2 year old? She is only 26 months old but whenever we get out the paper and crayons, she wants me to draw things and tells me what to draw but doesn’t want to spend much time drawing herself. And if she asks me to draw an elephant and I say she can do it herself, she tells me she can’t. We don’t do coloring books other than the occasional one her grandparents give her and I have always been careful to praise/talk about the non-technical things (I love the bright colors you choose, I like these swirls over here, etc) but I don’t know what else to do. She isn’t the same way about painting and is content just putting colors on the paper, mixing them and exploring with art so we do that a lot – and so far I’ve refused to participate in the actual painting process myself so she doesn’t even seem to consider my painting something an option. But sometimes painting is a little too involved and I wish we could enjoy just grabbing some crayons and paper and making some easy art.

  24. Eula says

    Thanks very much for this post. I have an 11 yr old daughter who doesnt seem to be very confident with the art and craft she does. I for sure love art and craft. I love to doodle, paint, sew, craft, etc. So much so I want to do it all at one time. But she would rather watch tv or play on her game box. I think she sees the beautiful work I do and she’s put off. Pls help! How do I get her interested in art. I’m not too keen in sending her to an art class. Need your advice.

  25. says

    Fantastic Post! I totally agree and have given the same advice to many of my friends who have asked the same question. Drawing on the right side of the brain is great. My mom read it when I was young and a budding artist to help guide me. Thanks for your terrific information.

  26. Lucia Hernandez says

    My name is Lucia. I am an architect by profession and an “art” teacher by passion and love for kids. I began teaching at an academy with a “big fancy” name here in my country to kids from the age 3 (sometimes younger). They gave this “guide” on how to teach, according to their thoughts and ideas on how it was best to motivate creativity in kids, but I must say that I found soon that it was not how I wanted to do it. Not because I just say so, but because I wasn’t pleased with the result and certainly the kids weren’t as well (imagine the mums). Well…I started reading articles like yours (which I LOVE, by the way), blogs, books, etc. and was happy to notice that I wasn’t the one who was mistaken. Long story, short…I changed MY way of teaching (without asking for permission, actually) and it turned out that the mums changed their kids to my class.
    Maybe the only thing I would like to add (since I’ve seen it work with children that are not my own, would be, and this is what I started making different than the other teachers… Create stories around the project you have for them (this is because I work with groups of 10-12 children at a time between the ages of 3-7), actually you’ll just have to say one things or two to get the childrens minds travel around their own creative (magical, innocent) minds. And you’ll be amazed of the things they say and draw and paint and enjoy…after an hour and a half I end up with the most beautiful and unique pieces of pure art (and I guess you can imagine the big smile in my face by the end of the class, right?) The most important things for me as a teacher are: 1. they enjoy the class 2. they go home proud of what they did, absolutelly loving their art pieces (as we call them all) 3. mums do also learn that a “pink horse without ears and five legs” is as unique and precious as any horse out there and that it comes from a place so great that does exist (according to the story her kids go telling them on the ride home).
    Do I have to mention how happy teaching makes me? I do not consider myself as an art teacher, although kids and parents call me that. As you said…it is the most important thing to me to create self confidence in my kids, than to see the perfect stallion on a kids canvas by the end of the thay. After all…what is really the perfect…anything???

  27. Lucia Hernandez says

    Try making up a story (doesn’t have to make sence)…make up fantastic places and describe them, fantastic characters, etc. And while you talk, draw them…does not have to be fast drawing there isn`t any rush but don’t think your drawings and colors to much, mix techniques (use crayons, markers, watercolors, acrylics and even clay on the same piece of art ((always call them “pieces of art”, since they are unique)) so use a surface that will work with all of that without collapsing). The exercise of creating stories has worked for me. Soon enough you’ll find your 2 year old trying to tell you a stoy, for which you’ll have to put full atention and “act” (it won’t be acting at all, since you’ll be actually surprised with what you hear) amazed and surprised and scared and hungry…(all according to the scene you are being told). I have learned kids have a natural talent for that; not making up stories, but amaze any adult around. Hope I was of any help.

  28. Karah says

    Loved this article. The lack of coloring books makes me laugh. We do t use coloring books either unless they are gifted. About halfway through my sons kindy year we were asked at a parent teacher conference if our son had access to crayons at home. When we told her he did she showed us his worksheets. My son refused to color in the lines and he redid all of his pictures (making someone taller or larger, adding additions to houses ect). Needless to say they weren’t pleased. We still don’t use coloring books though lol.

  29. Taryn says

    I am so glad I found this post! I am the “I can’t draw” culprit! Thank you for sharing; this has changed my way of thinking about art with my three year old. Sadly, my sixteen year old got the old me and now sounds just like me when it comes to art :( I really needed this information and will pass it on to my oldest so he will not continue the cycle – Thank you!

  30. Nikka Yap says

    Hi! I’m a K-1 Art teacher from the Philippines. Would you mind if I shared your article with our school community on our newsletter? I’ll cite you as the source of course. :)

  31. says

    I thought your article was logical and to the point. I wouldn’t take my 3year old to a drawing class, unless it was a course carefully designed to match the IQ and EQ of little kids (free drawing, new materials, using hands and feet and so on).
    I was contemplating with the idea of colouring books and in fact she has a couple. I was thinking deep down that maybe a colouring book wouldn’t allow her imagination to expand, so we did a little bit of both (free drawing and colouring pages). I realized though that this thought hadn’t left my mind, until I read your article. Well, I actually got up, put the colouring books away on a shelf and sat down to write you my comment! Thanks for the answer I didn’t know I needed!