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Kai-Lan and 6 Ways to Inspire Creative Drawing


This is Kai-Lan, as drawn by Maia. Do you know her? We don't get TV, but do check out DVDs of some children's TV shows from the library. One that Maia really likes (and that I'm so, so about) is about a little Chinese girl named Kai-Lan. I'd like to say that her drawing of her is full of creative inspiration, but she copied it from a band-aid box.


I came home with these band-aids for her a few days ago and she immediately sat down at her red table and drew Kai-Lan detail by detail from the band-aid box. I've never seen her do this before! It was interesting for me to watch, but I'm still not completely sure what to think of it.

On one hand, I think it's harmless and natural for children to want to copy images around them. And being able to translate what you see to paper is a good skill to have. However, I've also noticed a big change in her drawings since she started kindergarten a month and a half ago.

Almost overnight they became all about the repetition of a few simple images: mostly hearts, smiley faces, and heart "flowers". I can only imagine that she and her classmates are looking at each other's drawings and wanting to draw what everyone else is drawing. Understandable, perhaps, but oh! Where did the creativity that brought this drawing into the world (or any of the other hundreds of drawings she's made over the past few years) go? I'm sincerely hoping this is a temporary phase and that she enjoys it thoroughly and then moves on.

And, in the meantime, I'm going to offer as many creative drawing opportunities at home as I can. The latest issue of WNC Parent magazine is out now and my column for this issue is titled "6 Ways to Inspire Creative Drawing." You can click here to read it. You'll need to enter page 37 in the page search field at the top, then click on the page in order to see it large enough to read. And perhaps I'll go re-read it myself as I plot the end of the "heart flower phase"!

If you have kids in school, did their drawings change significantly after starting school? Just curious…


  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 8:43 am

    I have one child who is not as artistic as the other. The non artistic child wants to draw everything “right.” I remember her at three throwing her crayons on the ground because her drawing didn’t look like what she wanted. Kindergarten was awesome for her! She saw the way other kids drew and started to immitate them. Now in first grade she is creating on her own and having more confidence. My younger son is very very artistic. I marvel at his abstract beautiful drawings. A lot like your daughters cave. I don’t want him to lose that so I fear for kindergarten for him.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 9:17 am

    this is so timely! i was JUST getting ready to email you about this very issue. justin was not into realism at ALL until kgarten. (although he has always totally been into abstract art.) now he’s drawing up a storm. i figured it was being around other children who are drawing and so initially i was very excited by that synergy that must be happening.
    but then we had a little friend of his over from his class. she was drawing a rainbow with hearts and those “m” shaped birds, you know the drill. and he sat down right next to her and drew the EXACT same thing. even wrote his name in the same place on the pg as she did! so then i started feeling worried. sometimes he’ll start drawing dragons or dinosaurs and say “so and so is so good at these” and i realize he’s copying the image he has from his head of their picture.
    i like the practice he’s getting and that he’s interested in drawing, and that on a “skill” level he’s getting better at drawing what he wants to draw, and that he sees a place for his work.
    but i too worry about the creative side of this. i don’t like that he’s placing other kids’ drawings as the standard. and while he’s excited about practicing, i would much rather that he dream up something in his own head and let that flow out, rather than copy images.
    sometimes he’ll work on drawing star after star and then say “this is my best star ever!” i have no idea how to respond to that. i want to be positive but also encourage him that he can make a star how ever he wants to make it.
    i’m curious what other’s thoughts are here. maybe this is just a normal part of development? or maybe we should be working hard at home to encourage more drawing from their own head somehow?
    maybe Mary Ann Kohl has some thoughts based on her longer experience?
    thanks for bringing this up jean! this is exactly where we are too!

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Snap! My daughter is in her first year of kindergarten too and I’ve seen the same things you’re talking about happening – and I’ve had the same concerned responses. I am worried that her creativity is being largely extinguished. But I also think I’m witnessing her inevitable ‘assimilation’ with the world-at-large and I’m hoping I’ve given her the grounding to carry her through it with her creativity in tact. But really – I’d like to hear what people with older kids think??

  • Reply
    sherri/the claw
    October 5, 2010 at 9:43 am

    I think children learn by copying to some extent. I remember wanting to be a cartoonist and copying charles schultz and archie comics all day. not saying she wants to work for nick jr. (ack!) but I think copying other people’s styles can be a helpful step for the growth offor a young artist, too. I like her Ni Hao much better than the band aid box.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Maybe show her artists like Klee or Picasso and explain the delight of their abstract work. Maybe you could even find some kid level type books about them. My kid is younger so I’m only guessing. As long as she understands it is still an option, I think she’ll come back to more creative stuff :) But I like her drawing of Kai Lan a lot!

  • Reply
    Mrs. Pilkington (olugbemisola)
    October 5, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for this post! I had the same experiences and concerns when my daughter entered kindergarten, but the inclination to copy or draw like her peers seems to be passing (she’s just started second grade, and I’ve noticed her settling back into drawing inspiration from her own imagination). And she did continue to a lot of other independent and unique art work (paper cutting) during that time, which was fun to watch. I did (and do) always keep providing lots of blank books, blank paper, and display space for that original work, too. I think it allows a ‘safe space’ to explore and try new techniques, and work like Susan Striker’s offers ideas for balancing it out too…

  • Reply
    Mrs. Pilkington (olugbemisola)
    October 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Oh, and your article is fantastic!

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    That is so cute! Charlotte would love that! She draws maps, flowers, and faces. That’s about it. =)

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    October 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I am an art teacher beginning her second year teaching art to 4 and 5 year olds (in addition to the First-Sixth Graders I’ve been teaching for years) and my method has been to talk about lines and shapes and mixing colors. We look at the work of the abstract expressionists and never even discuss realism. I feel like my job during these first two years in the art studio is to foster confidence. Really nothing more than that. Well…except to make sure everyone has fun.

  • Reply
    Lindsay R
    October 5, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    so much to think about here. i’m worried, too, jean. not just about drawing, but about everything related to “assimilation”. ugh. i was buoyed a bit by the reader who said that by 2nd grade, with continued creativity at home, that her child was back to herself a bit in terms of drawing from her own head. although my son is in K, i’ve really thought it might just not be developmentally appropriate in this “wonder” phase to be exposing him to all this nonsense about the “right” or “popular” way of doing things.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    My daugter started kinder this year too and yesterday she CUT HER OWN HAIR because she was the only one of her friends who doesn’t have bangs! Sadly, she still doesn’t have bangs, and she probably won’t for at least a few months :(

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    I see this a little too– blagh!
    But I checked out this book this summer:
    Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes. It’s a method for teaching children how to draw realistically, in the same way one learns to write letters of the alphabet (looking for patterns like above the line, below the line, line plus curve…). Anyway, she goes to great length to talk about how kids can learn to draw very realistically from observation, and how they can continue to draw symbolically from imagination, and despite the imaginative drawings seeming much more “unskilled” the children don’t have any trouble switching between the two types of drawing.
    SO it gives me hope that it really is some sort of passing phase, and if we keep on emphasizing art and creative expression at home, that copying of cutesy things will pass away (vs. the tactic of making a huge deal about it.)
    I have to say, I much prefer Maia’s KaiLan! :)

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I teach art education… In my opinion the problem with the Kindergarden are the teachers who do not offer enough inspiration and stimulation. When kids don’t have these (through talking, describing, looking, observing, imagining, listening, etc…) they tend to copy one another. These stereotipical drawings are a symptom of that. It is never enough to say “you can use your imagination to draw it your way” because it doesn’t provide any help to the kid, but instead offer a range of very different images of the same topic (for example – if she draws a tree look at different trees (or stars, somebaody mentioned stars – i would provide some images of very different stars) and discuss their different shapes, colors, textueres, sizes…) and always use open ended questions about a certain topic in order to stimulate the kid’s obseravation or bring images from their imagination – alive, so they can work with them. In the end the whole thing about art is that there is never just one right way!
    Did you think of asking Maia how many different hearts can she draw?

  • Reply
    Dawn Lange
    October 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    We still have the cave drawing on the playroom door- I love it!!!

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I’m dealing with symbols being drawn by my students whom I have been told love to draw the most. I teach art once/week 6-12 yr olds at our homeschool co-op. I love it, but I am sweating every week over what tools I can give them. The second class, I tried asking questions to spark ideas (such as, “if you could come to school any way you want, how would you come?”) which is what Nancy Beal writes in The Art of Teaching Art to Children. I received a lot of great comments, but they chose to draw what they already knew how to draw -symbols- stars, hearts, peace signs. I realized if they are not experienced with using the materials it’s my job to get them experienced.
    So I’ve taught basics- lines, shapes, filling the page, look closely- all last month. I showed them blind contour (even to the youngest) last week because I want to help those who I hear say, “I wish I could draw that!”
    I started off the year wanting to teach through MaryAnn Kohl’s Storybook Art, which I thought would be great to show them an example of a technique first (that wasn’t MY example). I have since changed my approach, thinking why show the answer before asking a question. I show the book AFTER the project (for instance we drew leaves, sticks and acorns by blind contour, then I showed them the book A Tree is Nice, explaining that was how Janice May Udry chose to show the same elements.)
    Also, I’ve discovered interesting articles written by Marvin Bartel found online. Have you seen them? They are challenging to me, teaching idea generation, without an expectation of the outcome. I keep in mind his article “Creativity Killers in the Classroom”.
    I think students are influenced by others- students, teachers, parents- who think that symbols are how you draw- like this is how to make a letter A, and this is how you draw a dog, step 1 2 3. UG. I see my daughter look to her older cousin for how she now draws a person, or to me for how to draw a fancy heart. :( It was only once!) Like the earlier comment about hair, sometimes they want to be like their peers. I think all I can do is keep the materials accessible so that if they somehow get in that rut, they’ll have the tools to get out!

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I was just thinking about teaching methods to my students from the First Art book- even to older kids. Crazy? It might be just what I need to do. Lots of my students haven’t had much experience with art at home.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    oh I am a bit nervous about this too. My boy goes to a Waldorf Kinder so the painting tey do is on one hand very controlled and on the other hand very free – not sure what I think about that either but it is not chaning his creativity fo the worse at least!

  • Reply
    October 5, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    BTW, we made mummies with masking tape today. I thought of you since you mentioned your little one loves tape.

  • Reply
    Julie L.
    October 5, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    As a former K teacher I saw a lot of this copying behavior in my classroom. I can tell you it extends beyond the pictures the kids draw. I think in the context of Kindergarten being a beginning point for kids to develop an understanding of a larger world it is valuable and important for them to explore copying others. I think it is equally, or perhaps more important for them to have a lot of conversations with adults about who they are as individuals. And also about the strength that comes from people being different. With Maia’s past (and hopefully still current) perception of herself as an artist I would expect this phase will pass but my kids are younger so I have no personal experience that I base that idea on.

  • Reply
    Ms. Maria
    October 5, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    We didn’t go through copying so much in K last year, maybe because she wasn’t in a traditional K, but I did worry because I felt like she had somehow “lost” her creativity or her interest in making art. She had a lot of resistance to drawing or even painting, which kind of freaked me out!
    This year though, she seems to have grown back into it, and her artwork has a bunch of new dimensions to it. She now fills the page on her own almost every time, and is much more relaxed and confident. Even as a smaller child she would be very frustrated if she couldn’t draw things “right,” the way she saw them in her head. Now I am seeing more acceptance (though she did bring a self portrait home from school today and say “I know it’s horrible”).
    Maybe there is a developmental anti-creativity stage that happens around Kindergarten? I’m being a little tongue in cheek because of course they are not anti-creative. But I am interested that so many people seem to have seen the same thing at around the same age.

  • Reply
    Lindsay R
    October 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    i’m excited to look for his stuff, too. sounds interesting.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    What an interesting perspective, Laura. I hadn’t thought of it that way — that copying could give some children artistic confidence.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks! :)

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    It’s good to hear that the inclination to copy passed with time for your daughter, and also that she continued to make other kinds of unique art work during that those two years.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Your approach for the 4 and 5 year olds sounds good. I know Maia has an art class once a week at her school, but she also draws in her classroom daily, and it seems to be from the drawing she does there with her friends that is affecting her style the most right now.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Oh, goodness!

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Yep. On the one hand there’s public school (at least for us) and the “right” way to do things, and on the other hand, there’s peer influence which can happen anywhere and everywhere.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I think we already have hundreds of hearts on our refrigerator alone! Although maybe you meant, how many different kinds of hearts she can draw? I’ll ask her that next time I see her drawing hearts. Thanks.
    I think Maia’s K teacher is pretty great and don’t see the hearts, etc as her influence at all. In fact, she takes the kids out for nature walks and has them draw caterpillars and chrysalids and other things they see and learn about in their science journals.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    With the stars, it’s such a specific symbol, almost like a letter of the alphabet or something. What would you say if he said, “this is my best “B” ever!”?
    You could do as Vera suggested below and ask him how many different kinds of stars he can draw. Or, maybe how small can he make a star (or whatever) and how big he can make one.
    As for the other stuff, I’m seeking answers myself!

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    I agree. Children learn most things by copying those around them to some extent. It makes sense that they would learn by copying drawings, too.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Have you tried the Mona Brookes method yet? I’ve read the book but didn’t do any of it and am curious about how it’s worked for your family.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I know! I saw it last time I was over. :)

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks to the link to Marvin Bartel’s articles! I hadn’t heard of him, but look forward to reading those.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    How about Scribble Art or The Big Messy Art Book (also Kohl)? Those projects are very process-oriented but will likely still appeal to that age group.

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Maia had the same Waldorf art experience last year in her preschool. Very different from what we do at home!

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    October 5, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    I may pass on showing that to Maia! She already mummifies her lower body with masking tape. Although the idea of making little mummy dolls is intriguing…

  • Reply
    October 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    my children love kai-lan, they also think there is a giant toy store in china because every time they ask me to read something for them it says “made in china.” Their dream is to go to China and tour the toy store with Kai Lan, so I’ve been trying to work on what it means to live in a communist country. I have not been successful.
    On a totally different note, I feel like my kids stopped loving art for awhile after they started preschool and did daily art projects, maybe they were just burned out when they got home, but it really upset me. Now the school has moved to more free-form art projects and less staged ones (i.e. put this sticker there and put that sticker there) and they seem to be really excited about art again.

  • Reply
    My Boys' Teacher
    October 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I am noticing a theme here. Read this post written by another mother whose daughter started kindergarten this fall, “following the crowd”:
    It gets worse:

  • Reply
    October 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    My 3 year old likes to copy my drawings when I draw with her. I think she needs inspiration and does not have enough skill yet to form figures and animals to her satisfaction. One day we were drawing rabbits and she got upset because hers looked different than mine, so I drew four different kinds of rabbits – cartoonish, realistic, stuffed animal type, and one more – just to show her that a rabbit can be drawn lots of ways and that she doesn’t have to copy Mommy. I then went to our bookshelf and looked for any book with an illustration that included a rabbit so she could see it wasn’t just something Mommy was making up to make her feel better. She still gets upset when one ear is bigger than the other, and her rabbits still look too much like mine. But I think with time, as her fine motor skills develop and she can control her pencil better, and we do more activities where she has to observe form, she will start finding her own artistic flair. I hope.

  • Reply
    October 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    I teach K-5 Art, and sadly I only see the kids one time per week, which is not enough! I think kids get excited about things they feel confident in. Repeating the same drawing over and over is safe. I think they do it because they feel good about doing something they can repeat and do well. I try to teach them NEW ways to feel confident about being an artist, ways that can translate into a broader sense. I also as the art teacher need to make sure I have a handle on how their fine motor skills are developing, which is a lot of the focus of kindergarten. Balancing the technical skills with creativity. PS. I think drawing from observation is a good thing. JUst keep exposing her to all kind of different things, I always drew the Little Mermaid and it made me feel so good about my drawing, and kept my love of art going! :) You are on the right path because you are simply aware of it! Feel free to check out my blog, the ART of Education anytime! Thanks for your wonderful blog as well.

  • Reply
    MaryAnn F. Kohl, art author
    October 6, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    It’s very good for children, and very natural too, for them to copy favorite characters from their books and from their lives. I used to draw Little Lulu and Casper the Ghost all over everything. I loved it! It’s part of art to try one’s hand at copying or mimicking. Many art students in universities spend hours and hours attempting to paint the works of the great masters, and are required to do so as a study. It doesn’t mean they only want to copy, it’s a tool for learning.
    Allowing Maia the freedom to explore art in all its forms is a great compliment to your ability to allow Maia to somewhat educate herself with your blessing for her to try.
    I know you are worried that she might be doing this so she will fit in with what the other girls are drawing. Yes, she probably is also doing this, and this is also natural… to want to belong. And what a lovely way to belong! Drawing together. It’s not like she is going to jump off a bridge, as my mom always used to say, just because everyone else is jumping. This is the beginning of a little girl becoming autonomous, and stand back, because it’s only the beginning!!
    You might try drawing something too, from the cover of a book or a favorite illustration, and see if you can do it. Show Maia your efforts and laugh/talk/discuss the results together. A fine time to try new things.
    With a smile on my face, because I have two grown daughters and I’ve been there!!
    MaryAnn Kohl
    PS I know kids who NEVER tire of copying and mimicking. This is the art they love most. Other kids become bored with it immediately or within a few tries. Still others will mix it into their open creativity in a balanced way. There will be much to learn about Maia on her adventure growing up and what will bring her spirit joy.

  • Reply
    MaryAnn F. Kohl, art author
    October 6, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    One more comment: I wanted to add that my daughters… so much like your Maia and Daphne… raised with creativity abounding… went through these stages too. And now they are in their 30’s, two of the most creative capable people I have ever met. One is in musical theatre writing and composing, the other is in theatre as an actor, and both can draw anything or create original art, poetry, music, you name it. And they are funny (humorous way) that brings so much joy to the world. So don’t worry too much! I now have the perspective of looking back. You give them the roots and then they grow. Sometimes it will look like they’re going off into a different garden :o) but if the roots are strong, they’ll be fine. Keep doing what you do. School won’t hurt.

  • Reply
    October 6, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    i think it depends on your slant…. my son has some developmental issues, and going to school was like opening a millions doors. his penmanship and drawing improved because he saw his peers drawing and had additional support (via therapists)other than just me showing him what to do. i do think that i would feel a little differently if i had what was called a “typical” child (i don’t like that term either but i don’t know what else to use). in the same breath, some children are always changing, experimenting, testing boundaries or limitations, or sometimes need boundaries and limitations in order to make great strides forward.
    in the end thou – there are many things that his (my son) teachers and therapists notice that are unusual for someone with his disability and developmental delays – we stress reading (for him it is identifying alphabet letters and object and then signing – ASL to us), drawing and music at home, and it shows. as parents we can really infuse our children with what is important to us!
    it will be interesting to see if it is just a phase….
    the main reason i wanted to leave a comment – in our public school they can’t afford to offer music and art each year, so they switch each year! it deeply saddened me that my son is going w/out this year, and secondly, when he did have art class, most projects were made built on paper plates – it was horrible. unfortunately we now expect that our son will not receive proper art and music at school and we provide this at home!
    ps – thought your daughter’s drawing was adorable, that see took the time to try and replicate something she found pleasing to her eyes. that her brain is trying to figure that all out, it’s amazing. don’t worry she’ll find her own way thru art, but often we were inspired by something we saw…..
    good luck………

  • Reply
    October 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I am an art teacher as well. With my own kindergarten littles I notice a lot of copying symbols and ideas from friends. In this early part of school it’s all about relationships and definitely not unusual for children to ‘try on’ the style of their friends. I remember doing the same this as a child. My students also enjoy drawing from observation – when we do this in art we celebrate the differences in each other’s work even though the subject matter is the same. I might show them different ways that artists see a particular subject matter – like a Rembrandt portrait compared to Modigliani compared to Picasso. This type of drawing builds confidence and will lead to artistic risk taking.

  • Reply
    October 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I have a nanny for 4 years working with several families and with all the children I have worked with all of them have gone through a copying faze, especially with the princesses. I try and strive for creativity with them and using their own imagination, but its almost like this is a stage of the artistic process. I have also had them look at animals and try to draw them.
    Some days I am like lets us are imagination today and see what we can come up with. I find that that helps, or I take the art work outside away from things that may distract them.
    I think things do change as children go to school and are around other children. It’s like no matter how hard you try to keep all of those things away from them they still seem to know about them.

  • Reply
    January 10, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I recommend you read Mona Brookes “Drawing with Children.”
    Symbolic drawings (hearts, stars, stick figures, etc.) are narratives, similar to story-telling, and this is a completely different form of expression than representational drawing. Symbolic drawing is natural to all children and important for communication. A child that imitates symbolic images is not necessarily doing the same thing as a child that cuts their hair.
    Representational drawing is a different ability and one that must be taught, similar to learning an instrument. Students must learn “to see” general shapes but then are free to interpret details on their own, create their own style, etc. Much as a musician learns scales, chords, rhythm, etc.
    Symbolic drawing is similar to playing scales; and representational drawing similar to writing your own song.
    So don’t be disheartened by your students alternating between symbolic and representational drawing as they really are two different forms of communication.
    You sound like a dedicated teacher and your students are fortunate for that.

  • Reply
    March 7, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Here’s a drawing game kids can play together. No copying, and always a funny surprise at the end. I loved it when I was growing up.

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