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Susan Striker on the Developmental Stages of Children’s Drawing

by Jean Van't Hul
February 1, 2008

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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