Repetition, symbols, and copying in children’s drawing


(One of two poster-board size works Maia filled with spirals after school yesterday.)

Okay, after all the fuss, I thought I should at least share some of the drawings Maia’s been doing since starting Kindergarten.

The change in her drawing style from before K to now (almost two months in) is marked and happened almost immediately. She repeats the same symbols over and over, and as others have remarked about their children’s artwork, Maia’s drawings have gotten much more simplistic.

It’s hard not to worry! Not just about her creativity, but also about the overall effect of school.

But your comments over the last two days have helped a lot. Many of you have echoed my own concerns and talked about similar changes your children went through at this age, and others have reassured me that this can be a normal change (especially for girls), and that it’s a phase (hopefully!!) that can be worked through.


(Detail of spirals and hearts. Note the change in hearts from left to right after I asked her how many different kinds of hearts she could draw. Thanks for the suggestion, Vera!)

I’m going to share a few excerpts from the many great comments people have left over the last couple of days.

Here’s what Julie Liddle (from Art in Hand) said:

In a nutshell, I think what you are seeing happening in school is a reflection of a social/developmental phenomenon. Her creativity is still in there, and it will find it’s way out a-plenty because the foundation is SO THERE, BUT she is also at the age now where she is noticing peers, connecting with them, and indentifying with them. Her orbit is growing, so she’s not just identifying with her creative mama anymore (sorry!)….

But it is an interesting phenomenon among girls at this age, in particular, that they seem to want to be just like each other, and draw just like each other. I see those matching rainbow/flower/heart drawings by girls in k-2nd grade ALL THE TIME (and of course I rather loathe them). Boys don’t seem to show the same desire to conform, but I guess it fits with the way girls play…they want to get along, work things out, like others and be liked by them, and I think these stereotyped drawings of those “pretty/lovey” images are all part of that desire.


(A few of the many, many heart flowers Maia has drawn lately)

MaryAnn F. Kohl, art author extraordinaire, said:

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.


(More heart flowers!)

Sarah, an art teacher, said:

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.


(Repetition of spirals and stick figures, combined with words copied from Starfall.com)

Julie L., a former kindergarten teacher, said:

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.


(Repetition of smiley faces, combined with creative use of tape and cut paper on a cardboard backing.)

And, last but not least, Olugbemisola said:

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.

Thanks again for all your comments!

While I am still somewhat concerned, I am also very interested in watching the changes that are taking place in Maia and her drawing. The more I see, the more I want to learn. I think one of these days (perhaps when Daphne is a little older), I may look into a graduate program in early childhood education…


  • Reply
    Amy B
    October 7, 2010 at 11:27 am

    “I see those matching rainbow/flower/heart drawings by girls in k-2nd grade ALL THE TIME (and of course I rather loathe them)”
    I am working hard not to “loathe” my child’s interests when they seem too mainstream, Disney, or what have you. These things (hearts, rainbows, Cinderella, Zsu-xsu pets) bring her HAPPINESS. She is proud of herself. She deserves to have her OWN interests and desires. She will get plenty of good influences from her parents and other people in her life. I don’t want to send the message (because if you loathe something, they WILL pick up on it) that there is something fundamentally wrong with loving Cinderella, or drawing like one’s friends at school. Because there isn’t.
    Today I heard my 5-year-old ask a classmate, “I really like the way you did your Geoboard! Can you show me how you did that?” And then the two girls bent heads together and worked together. I was muy impressed. As expressed in comments above, copying and imitation can lead to very important social learning moments.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Very good points made! I adore your blog.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 11:56 am

    You know…I was just thinking…perhaps you are looking at her doodling too negatively. Rather than just “copying,” perhaps pricisely because she has a creative mama, she has turned to art as a soothing experience.

  • Reply
    Darcy Troutman
    October 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Could it be related to the emphasis on learning to read and write? Writing letters really just involves copying and copying and copying again (it’s not like anyone ever gets credit for coming up with a brand new “D”, well except typographers). So maybe some of that filters into art. After all, children don’t really see art and science and math, etc. as different concepts. just a guess.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I really like the discussion that’s happening here about copying and development. I also like that you’re able to see both sides of the situation and discuss the issue logically.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I have a B.F.A. and I remember drawing those symbols as I kid. Wild! This may not be her intent, but I remember when I did those symbols, the “heart flower” was meant to be a tulip. It looks kind of like a heart when you simplify it. And I remember doing spirals like that that were flowers…the stem came up and the spiral part was meant to be a rose. And, another thought I had for a “project” is to learn how to make repetitive patterns (surface pattern design) for wallpaper, wrapping paper, and such. I was fascinated by how she covered the whole page with patterns of symbols and it reminded me of wallpaper. If this is her interest at the moment, why not use it and go with it? She could create stamps of her symbols and create patterns, dollhouse wallpaper, etc . These are just thoughts that flashed in my head as I read this post and hoped maybe it would assuage your worries a bit and maybe you can use her current interests as a sort of place to encourage and use to her benefit.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    It is with great interest that I have followed this topic over the last couple of days. As a music teacher I have had a slightly different take on the subject, and even though art and music are different mediums, they share commonality in artistic expression. I have found, through the years, that the students who excel creatively are the ones who have the greatest mastery of the fundamentals. Repetition of scales and exercises ultimately frees them up to make creative choices of their own down the line. Perhaps this peer directed repetition in your daughter’s art could be seen as another way to master the basics.
    As a side note, my oldest daughter is 11 and has had a crayon or pencil in her hand most of her life. She continues to go through stages of mimicking others’ work, but it always ends with her using her own imagination to expand, beautify and experiment with it until she makes it her own.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking topic.

  • Reply
    Dawn Lange
    October 7, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    All the drawings you posted on here are adorable. I completely hear what you are saying (and would have similar questions about school), but it seems to me like she is just expanding her creative methods.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    This is so interesting… My daughter is only 3 so we are not at this stage yet but I think this stage (and the comments that you’ve posted along with the drawing) is rather fascinating.
    I vividly remember starting nursery school and that my mother was disappointed with the drawings I brought home. At home I started drawing faces and figures on the early side but when I started school I noticed all of my young classmates were scribbling. I very much remember feeling self conscious and thinking – oh, I should scribble too! So I started scribbling again. I also remember repeating my best friend’s repetitive cloud scribbles in kindergarten and also recall that our art teacher tried to discourage us all from copying this. But we could not be stopped! Indeed, it’s a form of socializing and camaraderie for girls.
    I supposed the positive reinforcement that we give in regard to their more unique works of art can help them feel confidence in regard to their uniqueness???

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I’m sorry, I’ve not read all the comments so may be repeating someone, but the first thing I thought when I saw the first picture of repetitive spiral shapes was writing.
    Maybe this repetitive style is unconsciously one of the first small formative steps towards forming letters – so many of which are similar shapes – she may even be surrounded by more words in the classroom than she is at home, allowing her eye to start noticing these patterns.
    I find your blog and art with Maia so inspiring. I’ve a 3 yr old and a 7 month old and bookmark SO many of your projects to do with them.
    Keep it up!

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I have just recently found your blog. I find this post to be so very interesting because my mother has, still all these years later, a framed picture that I drew my first day of kindergarten. It is a bunch of “heart flowers” (flowers that instead of petals, there are hearts).
    That being said, having absolutely no background in art, and only a 13 month old to speak of as experience, I don’t think copying is necessarily a horrible thing. Smaller children learn to play by copying older children. Toddlers will mimic their mothers activities, or things that older siblings do. Babies will often open and close the same toy a thousand times before they really “get” the concept of open and closed. Their little brains need repetition to really learn something. How many circles did you have to draw before you actually drew a perfect one?

  • Reply
    Julie Liddle, ART IN HANDd
    October 7, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    And one more thing I wanted to add, is that I think you will be far less likely to see these stereotyped images when you offer her less “conventional” art materials. So even as she is working through this normal developmental stage as reflected in her drawings (developing schema for representing her world), she will undoubtedly still show her more creative side when given other types of media (think 3-D)!! Also, with her burgeonging reading and writing skills, I bet you have lots of creative storytelling and writing from Maia to look forward to!

  • Reply
    Julie Liddle, ART IN HANDd
    October 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    As moms who value that delightful unabashed spontaneity of a toddlers and preschoolers art, it is so hard for US to let go of that when they move into this more “self-conscious” style of art. I think that’s what we’re all talking about. But you are right…it is normal and it is their way of expressing who they are, or at least trying out some new ways of being, and we have to respect it. And it usually is temporary. :)

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I beg to differ somewhat. This process of change may be normal but it is by no means necessary nor desirable imo. School encourages conformity and has a huge normalising effect on children. Unfortunately this norming is downwards, not upwards and children who have creativity, communication skills and big personalities can shrink in many ways before your eyes.
    A friend’s child has just started in the UK equivalent of kindy class and has already suffered her peers mocking a picture she drew of a monkey. TO me and any other adult who see it, her picture very clearly shows a monkey but they told her it was a silly picture and not a monkey. She is a smart kid who told me that the other children ‘can’t draw anything’ and that is why they criticise her.
    My own daughter lasted only four weeks in that class before we saw that she was losing her essence and we decided to home educate her. See is now 7 and still creating without boundaries and free to choose when and how she creates.
    Listen to Ken Robinson https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
    I have two who have made it through school and two who unlikely to ever go to school and it pains me to know what my first two children have lost of themselves and are now working to recover.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    My daughter is also in kindergarten and started school last year in 4K. Like you, I noticed the change in her artwork in 4K when she first started school. Most of her drawings from school were, quite frankly, inferior to those she was making at home. However, one day I decided to volunteer in the classroom and noticed that she was producing most of those pictures during free time, a very chaotic period were they can choose to do what they like. She rushed through drawings that she would have spent more time on at home because she wanted to do other things as well during her free time. And yes, she was copying what she was seeing others do, but I’m sure they were copying her as well. I’ve tried not to mention or criticize anything because it is all part of the learning process. She still creates wonderful drawings on her own at home, when she is feeling particularly inspired. I just leave out all the crayons and paper and let her draw when and what her heart desires.
    And, I must say I do love your daughter’s spiral artwork. What a wonderful mix of colors. It looks like experimental art, trying out new things with the spirals going in all directions.

  • Reply
    October 7, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    oh wow– i was going to suggest ken robinson to ou, too. i just finished reading his fascinating book, the element.
    i am currently working for school transformation (different from reform) since i feel all schooling as we know it (even waldorf, etc…) encourages conformity and was created for a different age.
    i have come to the conclusion that in order to avoid this, the answer (which is not much of an answer for me right now) is to UN school my kids. (very different from homeschool)
    good luck! I share your worry!!!

  • Reply
    October 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    I have to say when I first saw your daughter’s drawing of Kai-Lan I was actually impressed. As an art teacher, it is so important that budding artists train their hand and eye to work together to create. Observational drawing is a wonderful exercise in art and I encourage it with my students all the time. It is much like other extra-curricular activities, such as playing an instrument or doing karate, you have to practice in order to have the freedom to be creative. If there is no foundation built, you will not have the tool box to be creative down the road. I hope this makes sense. Your daughter is just building her tool box…these tools will help her to be creative in the end.

  • Reply
    October 8, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Hi Jean. I just discovered your blog and wanted to weigh in on the discussion! I am an art therapy grad student, and I found it interesting that in my reading for Child Development this week, we were talking about some very similar issues. In short, there are stages in graphic development, just as there are stages in physical and cognitive development. To quote from my book “Creative and Mental Growth” by Viktor Lowenfeld,
    “…as children grow older they develop a real need for order and repetition, which is reflected in their drawings and paintings. This decrease in spontaneity is actually a step toward the development of abstract thinking, an important factor in creativity.”
    So, in short, take heart in all those hearts! :)

  • Reply
    October 9, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    But is it really “self conscious”? Isn’t it possible that the children are just inspired by one another?

  • Reply
    October 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    I thought repetition was pretty common amongst artists. Don’t artists typically do many, many “studies” of a subject? Drawing it again and again and again before painting or sculpting?
    And don’t artists – of all stripes – like to commune together, work together, share ideas and inspiration? Of course, I can’t remember any examples right now, but I know there are many such “clubs” throughout history.
    I don’t understand the angst. Honestly, all this worry and fretting sounds like the antithesis of what you profess to be about. Isn’t the point of embracing art and creativity is to let what happens happen?
    This is starting to sound like you have this identity wrapped up in having this wonderfully, creative child. This could be her “conformity period” but what if she turns out to be a bean-counter? What if she embraces rigid guidelines and rules, as plenty of happy, well-adjusted people do? Will that be okay with you?
    I know, I know – you have this vision of how things are supposed to be and it feels like that vision and all your hard work is vanishing before your eyes. But that was just a vision and there are plenty of new ones out there. I think it’s time for some deep breaths and just going with the flow. Even if that flow is heading squarely down the mainstream.

  • Reply
    October 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Hi Jean,
    Thank you for sharing this very generous reflection on your process of unpacking Maia’s journey into Kindergarten. As a creative parent of an infant and 2-year old, I’m highly concerned about what will happen when my daughters enter grade school. Because I feel a huge a connection with your philosophy of raising children who can think creativity and for themselves, this thread has helped me wrap my head around what to expect in a couple years.
    When I was about to enter Kindergarten, my mom pulled me from a class that had all of the children coloring in American flags, with the teacher correcting the children who didn’t color in the stripes red and the star-background blue. So sad.
    On a bright note, don’t forget that Picasso is noted for saying that “good artists copy, but great artists steal.” The best ideas are a synthesis of multiple ideas. Steven Johnson just wrote a book about this concept, and it’s really compelling to think about. Check out this fun video by him: https://vodpod.com/watch/4488295-where-good-ideas-come-from-by-steven-johnson
    Many, many thanks.

  • Reply
    October 11, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I noticed the same thing when my daughter started kindergarten. She is now in 2nd grade and I have noticed that her creativity progresses during the summer and slows to a crawl during the school year.
    By contrast, a friend of hers who is home schooled has continued to develop her creativity. While their skills were pretty equal when my daughter started kindergarten, her friend is now clearly much more skilled at art. On the other hand, my daughter can read and her friend cannot…
    I think it does have something to do with a shift in focus. At school the children really don’t choose what they do with their time. They spend most of it learning to read and write (and “behave”).

  • Reply
    October 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

    My two cents: I teach art at the elementary level and when I see students starting to copy each other, I always ask them: OK, see how these look alike? How can you make it different? And I always stress that their work should look different from one another because they are each unique and different from one another, and their work should therefore reflect this.
    The children are used to having art classes where they follow one model. It took a good half a year at my new school for students to stop asking for permission to do something their own way – now they know they are free to do so in my class.
    It chagrins me too when I hear homeroom teachers comment on their work: how beautiful! how pretty! Continue asking the more meaningful questions that Mary Kohl suggests. Point out where something interesting is happening in her work and ask her to tell you more about what she has done.
    I suggest you continue at home to encourage her to explore her own interests. I can tell who are the parents that encourage their children to express themselves freely – the students are more confident to do in the classroom as well.
    And also – when a student rushes through a project, i ask them to do a second one when they finish early. and a third one. each time they learn something – and like you have done, you can ask her how can she make it slightly different each time. There is great value in learning through repetition as well. YOu have to teach her that as well.
    BEST! you have done an awesome job in educating your children – you can see in your blog how you yourself have grown over the years. You went from a strong interest in the product to a stronger emphasis on the process. Make the repetition part of the process as well. You have done a wonderful job in letting her have control of her process.
    [boy, was this longer than i intended!]

  • Reply
    October 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I was interested to pass by and see this discussion on your blog – you may remember I emailed a question to you about this (and how to deal with the negative impact of ‘snide’ comments on your children’s creativity) – good to see so many useful suggestions. Thank you :)

  • Reply
    October 15, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    My 6 year old son is fascinating. His other brothers are athletic and hard working. One is a twin to him. Well anyway, he can add the craziest number combinations (6+6+6+8) immediatley and when I say we are going somewhere in 2 weeks, he says oh, 14 days….etc. He is also good at chess, building lego buildings that would make architectures say wow, plays piano and has to get every note right or he starts completley over and grasps other mind bending games. AND he draws repetitive pix, symbols etc to completley fill every last space on a picture.
    I like to think it’s a sign of creative genius :o)
    He is very particular and absorbed in his tasks and analytical.
    Rejoice in your childs gifts and bends.

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