What age should a child be able to draw?

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Drawing development

As parents of young bubs, we’re excited by so many of their skills. From milestones like crawling and learning to use a spoon.. through to putting on clothes and recognisable speech. But one that’s sometimes overlooked is their efforts in drawing. Yet as you’ll see shortly, this skill is important for a huge range of developmental reasons. It’s also quiet, inexpensive and enjoyable!

When is my child likely to start?

Most children are ready to start their first scribbles between 12 and 18 months. By this stage they’re able to sit up without assistance, pick up an object in a fist and move it across a surface. they’re often still at the “taste everything they pick up” stage – so make sure all their tools are non-toxic. Don’t worry too much about “starting them too early” – your child will pick up a crayon when the time is right. All you need to do is provide the appropriate tools and opportunities.

First scribbles

It’s a really good idea to start with a large sheet of paper (eg butcher’s paper), sticky-taped to the floor. This makes it easier for her wide, exaggerated movements to stay on the page. Offer a single crayon – one that’s short and fat is easiest for a small hand to grip. She’ll hold it in a fist – many children hold crayons, pens and pencils this way until school age. Her movements will come from the shoulder or elbow with very little precision. But as your child moves the crayon back and forth, she’ll start to work out she is causing the marks to appear; this discovery brings great joy.

Age 2 to 3

Around age 2 your toddler will start to move from random to controlled scribbles. His fine motor skills (movements of wrists / hands / fingers) will also improve, and he’ll move on to an early “pencil” grip. Now is a good time to add some more colours to his selection – toddlers love to show their autonomy by choosing which colour to use next. He’ll branch out from “pendulum-like” left/right movements, to eventually include circular motions, lines, zig-zags, dots and crosses. Although he’s unlikely to be “trying” to draw a particular object, he may occasionally notice that a scribble reminds him of something – like the way adults “spot” animal shapes in clouds.

Age 3 to 4

By age 3 drawing may change from simple “mark making” to an attempt to represent something. A circle with two straight lines (for legs) commonly signifies a person. At this stage, many children will talk to themselves or others while drawing; some will start to “name” their images. Most will begin to take notice of letters and will include them in drawings.

Age 4 to 5

At this stage, a young artist is still likely to choose colours at random (eg green sky) and objects will also be placed randomly. Yet some figures will be deliberately drawn larger to show their importance (eg a parent or pet). She’ll tend to draw most complex items in “x-ray style” – ie you’ll see the inside of a “house” from the outside. She may also begin to tell stories with her drawings.

It’s really important to remember that as with any guidelines to a child’s development, the stages above are an average – your child may move through them at a slower or faster rate depending on a range of factors, including how often/long they are able to draw.

How you can help

Research has found that the type of support you give is vital. It sounds really simple but the best thing you can do is just sit, watch and listen; showing interest as he draws and enjoys himself. When you do ask a question or give encouragement – it’s better to focus on the effort than the outcome. (You’ll find some examples below.) Researchers have found asking questions such as “What is it?” can lead to discouragement as your child may think they’ve failed to produce the “art” you want. Comparing one child’s drawing with another’s can also be a problem. Often the “less successful” child will try to imitate the “better artist” – reducing their creativity – or simply giving up.

Positive feedback:

  • “You’ve been working hard. There’s lots of dots on this drawing!”
  • “Is it fun moving the crayon round and round?”
  • “We’ll put this on the fridge, so Dad can see it when he gets home!”
  • “Let’s put this one in an envelope, and send it to grandma!”

Less effective feedback:

  • “What’s that?” (“Tell me about your drawing” is better.)
  • “You forgot the arms!”
  • “Try drawing your house like Johnny does…”
  • “No, the sky is blue. Here’s the blue crayon.”

Famous artists who started early

When encouraging your child to draw, you might wonder if they’re showing a particular talent. It’s possible, but more likely they’re simply enjoying a fun – and developmentally vital – activity. That said, some children will go on to greater artistic heights. Many of the world’s most famous artists started early. As a baby, Pablo Picasso’s first word was “pencil” – not a surprise as both his parents were artists. Eight year old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew sketches and caricatures in his exercise workbooks. And at age ten an enterprising Claude Monet sold his charcoal caricatures to local people.

Drawing may boost many other skills in your child

A 2009 American study found kindergarten children’s ability to draw correlated with their ability to write the alphabet. And it would appear that more drawing time is better. Another study (in 1994) looked at two groups of children – and found kids who spent more time at home practicing drawing and writing ended up having better writing, and more creative drawings.

Drawing also has links to a child’s speaking skills. A 2006 study found that a child’s ability to draw was linked to their ability to quickly name objects. Many children appear to enjoy drawing with their peers and discussing what they’re creating. Some experts suggest this teaches them social skills. Others suggest that drawing and the ensuing talk between children or with adults helps the development of writing skills.

A number of studies have also linked a child’s ability to draw with their ability to learn.

The Stages of Drawing Development in Children: 0-6 Years

Here is a brief overview of the fascinating stages of drawing in child development and why it’s important to encourage young children to draw.

Drawing is a natural process for all children. From infancy, children begin by experimenting with drawing tools and making marks on paper, and as they grow, these marks start taking on meaning. 

Drawing ultimately becomes a child’s way of expressing their understanding of the world and all the things that are important to them.

Find out how children learn to draw and why it’s a crucial activity. There is also a breakdown of the stages of drawing development at various ages.

How to Teach a Child to Draw

During the early years, It’s important to focus on the process of creative drawing, and not on the product. 

There is no need to formally teach children to draw. The best way to teach them is to give them exposure to materials and drawing tools and let them express themselves freely. 

As they grow and mature, their drawings will become more detailed and reflect the world around them.

Avoid the temptation to provide models for children to copy and limit their exposure to colouring books. These only serve to take away natural creativity.

Why Drawing is Important

There are many benefits of drawing during the toddler and preschool years. It:

  • builds a child’s fine motor skills
  • develops hand-eye coordination
  • develops creative expression through free drawing
  • is the foundation of pre-writing skills
  • builds a child’s attention span
  • develops cognitive understanding of concepts

Tracing pictures or “teaching” a child to draw by following models are not natural, age-appropriate ways to develop creativity.

The Stages of Drawing

Here are the characteristics of the various developmental stages of children’s drawings. These are not set in stone as children develop at their own unique rates.

They will reach the milestones at their own pace, however, they all progress through the same stages, which are based on their level of understanding.

The characteristics are listed by age. 

Watch the video below for a summary of each stage, or read on for a breakdown of the various ages.

12 Months: Random Marks and Scribbles

The first stage of drawing is about exploring and developing motor coordination.

At around 15 to 18 months babies begin to develop uncontrolled scribbles that don’t represent anything.

Shapes

Babies begin by making random marks and soon begin to form:

  • scribbles
  • vertical and horizontal lines
  • multiple line drawings

Understanding

For babies, drawing is really about learning cause and effect and their ability to make things happen. 

It has little to do with creating and representing their world, and more to do with enjoying their movements and the effects of them. 

Their scribbles enable them to learn about the properties of objects, materials and tools such as pencils, pens, paint, crayons and paper.

Grip

From around 15 months of age, toddlers are usually able to grasp crayons with their whole hand (called a palmar grasp).

2 Years: Controlled Scribbles

This stage is known as controlled scribbling

It is characterized by spontaneous circular or to-and-fro scribbles and dots.

Similar scribbles can be found in all children’s drawings at this age and the shapes in them are necessary for developing drawing and writing skills later on.

Shapes

Toddlers begin to make drawings that include:

  • horizontal and vertical lines
  • multiple loops and spirals
  • roughly drawn circles
  • shapes that resemble letters T and V

Grip

Two-year-olds learn to hold a pencil well down the shaft towards the point, using their thumb and first two fingers (called a tripod grasp).

They will usually use their preferred hand.

Understanding

At this age, toddlers begin to discover the connection between the movements they make and the marks that form on the paper. They will begin to repeat movements on purpose.

By the end of this year, these drawings evolve into simple diagrams.

3 Years: Basic Shapes

During this stage, children begin to use basic shapes in their drawings as their fine motor control and hand-eye coordination improve.

Shapes

Drawings at this age include the following shapes, combined in different ways:

  • circles and squares
  • crosses 
  • dots
  • shapes that resemble letters T, V and H

Drawing of a person

The first drawing of a person usually emerges around 3 or 4 years of age. 

These ‘tadpole’ people are drawn with just a head and usually legs directly attached to the head.

Grip

A 3-year-old holds a pencil near the tip, between the first two fingers and the thumb.

They use the preferred hand and hold the pencil with good control.

At this age, you can help your child develop a good tripod grasp by using triangular crayons.

Understanding

At this age, children are able to tell you what their scribbles represent, although you may not be able to see what they have described. 

They usually name their picture while drawing it or after it is complete, but they do not start a drawing with a clear plan for what they will draw.

The use of colour at this stage is unrealistic and they often prefer to use only one colour.

4 Years: Patterns and ‘Tadpole’ People

By 4 years of age, patterns start emerging in children’s drawings. A child will make a pattern and interpret it as a representation of something, giving it a label.

Shapes

Their drawings include:

  • Squares, circles and rectangles
  • Attempts at triangles and diamonds, although she may not be able to form them yet
  • Crosses
  • Letters (pretend writing)

Drawing of a person

A 4-year-old’s drawing of a person will progress from a head with legs to include details such as eyes – since eye contact is important to them. 

They draw not what they see, but what they know, and will add details as they become important to them.

Details such as arms, fingers and a trunk emerge.

Drawing other images

By 4-and-a-half they begin to combine two or more shapes or forms together to form basic images, such as a rectangle and a circle to form a hat. They often learn this from adults.

The first shapes children make consistently will usually form people, but later includes basic images such as a house or sun.

Grip

At this stage, they hold a pencil with good control, in an adult fashion.

Understanding

Drawing takes on more meaning and intention. Children usually decide what they are going to draw before they begin.

They deliberately try to combine shapes and lines together and their pictures start to look like the images they describe.

5 Years: Pictures and Portraits

5-year-olds begin to show much creativity in their drawings.

Shapes

Their drawings will include:

  • Basic shapes
  • Triangles and diamonds
  • Spontaneous letters (to imitate writing)

Drawing of a person

A portrait of a person emerges, with many details such as hair, hands and fingers, feet and a body.

Drawing other images

They draw images such as animals, houses, vehicles, trees, plants, flowers and rainbows.

They are able to include details – such as drawing a house with a door, windows, roof and chimney.

Grip

By 5 years of age, children should have developed good control when holding a pencil, crayon or paintbrush.

Understanding

Children will now draw spontaneously and begin to show their own background, interests and experiences in their drawings. They draw what they know.

Their representation of people, animals and houses changes constantly.

They will also name their picture before beginning.

They can colour within the lines but their use of colour may still be unrealistic.

At this point, people and objects may still be floating in the air as children are still developing spatial perception.

They usually place themself in the middle of a drawing due to their egocentric nature (seeing themselves as the centre of the world).

6 Years: Drawings Represent Interests and Experience

By 6 or 7 years, children have their own style of drawing, which can usually be recognized by adults.

Shapes

By the time they are 7, they will be able to form good circles, squares, rectangles, triangles and diamonds in his drawings.

Drawing of a person

A child usually settles on a certain representation of a person at this age and tends to draw them all with the same basic shape.

For example, they will draw the whole family with the same body outline but will make the members of the family different sizes and show gender with hair and clothes. 

Drawing other images

Drawings represent all kinds of animals and things, usually those that interest them the most. 

They tend to draw animals with human-like faces.

Understanding

At this stage, children show their higher level of cognition by drawing people, animals and objects on a baseline, such as on the ground or grass. 

They also show perception by drawing, for example, trees higher than the house or flowers that are small.

This drawing shows a child’s greater understanding of depth and distance.

The way they see the world comes through their drawings. They leave out unimportant things and enlarge things that are important to them.

They may draw a small door on a house, just big enough for themselves, or very high windows, since they cannot reach them.

They can also show movement in their drawings by portraying objects that are flying or drawing the legs of an animal wider apart if running.

Their use of colour becomes quite realistic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the stages of drawing development in young children and are inspired to encourage your children to do lots of free drawing and creative expression.

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