Monday, April 16, 2012

The Importance of Scribbling to Childhood Development

From the very first mark that a child makes on a piece of paper parents are already trying to guess what the child is trying to draw. As with any milestone, parents will immediately shower the child with compliments about what they have put on paper. From the child’s perspective, what they enjoy more is the process. When a child is beginning to draw they are not trying to make a representation of something that they saw. Instead, what they put on paper is known as scribbles. Beyond the joy that having some artwork made by a child can be for parents, the act of scribbling is the beginning of a new stage of development where the child begins to control their fine motor skills. 

At the beginning, usually around two years of age, a child’s scribbles may resemble random sporadic marks. In fact at first a child may not look at the paper or even seem to realize that they are making any marks at all. This is normal for a child who has still not begun to develop their fine motor skills and there is no need to try to rush them. At this stage parents should be patient while the child learns the feeling of the materials such as the softness of the crayon and the smoothness of the paper. Soon the child will also begin to notice that the marks that are left on the paper are a result of the materials. This can only happen when the parents allow the child the freedom to move their hand back and fourth on the paper and observe what they are doing. At no point during this stage is it essential that they draw a stick figure. 

In the same way that a child begins to discover their limbs as part of their body that they have control over, they will similarly begin to recognize their ability to move and control objects. This is reflected as they become more focused on their scribbles. When they are ready, a child will discover that the motion of their arms has some relation with what they are seeing on the paper. This will bring them the joy of realizing a new extent of control that they have. The will express this joy through repeating the same movements, trying to make the same kind of mark or making bigger ones. Considering how fine motor skills are necessary for a child to hold a crayon, to press down with it on paper, to keep the paper steady and then to try to make it do what they want, it is important to allow them the time they need. At this stage they are developing their hand-eye coordination as well as their visual control. For this reason it is important to give them the freedom to repeat as many times as they need without intervening with new materials or drawing lessons.

Recognizing how scribbling reflects the growing understanding of a child’s control over their body, parents can play a role in facilitating the process. Parents should stay away from directing the child’s hands or correcting their drawings at any stage. This gives the child the opportunity to let their skills develop naturally at their pace. It is important to have very clear that, in the early stages, scribbles are more a representation of a child’s control over their body and not yet an artistic expression of emotion. Parents should avoid confusing the child by ascribing qualitative values to the drawings themselves. Doing so would be similar to praising a child for the symmetry of a half eaten carrot when they are done eating. Instead of waiting for the child to “finish” a drawing, parents should focus on being present during the process through passive interaction. This will demonstrate their support and interest in the child’s well being and will create a trusting environment for the child.

Many parents will try to teach their children how to draw simple things such as people, the sun or animals. At the earliest stages, considering that a child has very little understanding of what “things,” are. Carrying out drawing lessons is, at the very least, dismissive to the child’s development. As a child begins to master control of their fine motor skills and gains better control over the materials as well, they will begin to try to draw things meant to represent what they see in real life. Almost as if to protect a child’s natural creativity, parents should avoid instructing them how to draw things by doing demonstrations or referring them to other drawings or pictures. Such comparison and unreasonable expectations will only create frustration for a child who will lose the initiative to interpret what they are seeing for themselves and will only be concerned with how much their drawing looks like what it should look like. Though many children will demand an example or help, parents should always encourage a child to draw what they want to draw how they want to draw it. So long as the parent is present, demonstrating their full interest in seeing the child do their drawing, the child will eventually stop insisting and focus on their drawing. At around 3 or 4 years of age, when children begin to want to tie their shoes or button themselves, they will begin to insist that they can draw things by themselves too.
  •  "Giving a child the opportunity to struggle trying to draw a giraffe or a person is one of the first exercises they will get in problem solving."

It is critical not to lose sight of the importance of each stage of scribbling and drawing. Just as important as it is in the early stages to let a child become familiar with themselves and their materials, at the later stage it is equally important to have patience. Giving a child the opportunity to struggle trying to draw a giraffe or a person is one of the first exercises they will get in problem solving. This struggle will help build a foundation of problem solving skills that they will require as they grow up.

It is also important to keep in mind the level of the child’s development when considering what kind of materials to give them. Here the emphasis should be put on the process. Many parents start off with either coloring books or finger paint. In the case of coloring books, how can parents expect a child to color within lines if they haven’t even had the opportunity to draw one for themselves? In the case of finger painting a child will need to learn what paint is, they will need to learn to use it with their fingers, which requires them to know what fingers are, they will need to learn where it is okay and not okay to get the paint… all of this they will have to learn before they can attempt a scribble. Some parents will value finger paint as “messy baby makeup” for an excuse to take a cute picture. The child, on the other hand, will have no way of stopping this level of disrespect that is not benefiting them in any way. For these reasons, the best materials to use for drawing on paper are a few crayons (without the paper wrapping). Children can also be encouraged when they scribble on sand or other age appropriate materials.

Of course, considering all the information out there, and the realities of the demands of parenting, it is important for parent sot keep in mind that it is never too late to modify attitudes, schedules and routines to the benefit of a child. In the case of scribbling and drawing the most important thing a parent can do is to patiently offer support in a place where the child is free and safe to move around without concerns over what they can or cannot touch etc. When a child has finished their work, parents should involve the child in the process of storing or sharing what they have done, this will let the child know that what they do is respected and will model for them how to respect the work of other.


Lowenfeld V, Brittain WL, Creative and Mental Growth. 5th ed. New York, NY:
The Macmillan Company; 1970.

Levick M, See What I’m Saying: What Children Tell us Through their art. Dubuque, IA: Islewest Publishing; 1998

Winner E, Invented Worlds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard university Press; 1982


  1. Thank you Magda for this information. The last two weeks I´ve offered an art center to toddles at our play group center and your article gave me the opportunity to talk with parents about the importance of supporting young children scribbles and understanding how they are more related to their gross motor development rather than to the adults need to see a drawing or intentional representation of the world.

  2. Fernanda, I am very excited and honored that you could use this information in your classes. Thank you very much again for the support.
    - Magdalena

  3. Magdalena, Thank you for sharing your knowledge about the important role that scribbling plays in fine motor skill development. I am particularly impressed with your thoughts on the "messy baby makeup" and the need to remain focused upon the child's freedom to explore what their bodies can do. I will definitely share this information with my clients, their parents and in future presentations that I give on scribbling and handwriting. Thanks again!

  4. Katherine, Thank you very much for reading and commenting on my blog I appreciate it. Thank you for commenting. I look forward to reading more from your site it is a very good resource for information about handwriting.

  5. This is such a nice post I must say! It’s a moment of pride for children starts scribbling and the next step that parents think about is getting the child enroll in the one of the best preschool. As a parent, this has happened to me a couple of times, so I know how it feels like to see a child scribble.

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