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- staying outside the lines; the importance of scribbling for children aged eighteen months to five years.

In life before we walk we have to learn how to crawl and, just as art imitates life, before we draw we need to first experience scribble. At approximately a year and a half children will begin to develop an interest in scribbling. This scribbling phase in a child’s development can be categorised into five different stages;  random scribbling, controlled scribbling, naming of scribbling, early representational attempts, and the representational stage of scribbling. Each one of these stages are crucial in children’s physical, creative and literary development - scribbling is an important part of a child’s life.  

Random scribbling is the first stage of this developmental process. It begins at approximately one and a half year of age and ends when a child is between two and two and a half years of age. These very first marks are children’s initial attempts to communicate through literacy and are a big milestone in their lives. Random scribbling happens when lines are drawn with simple movements through a child’s arm swinging back and forward. The drawing at this point is a visual record of the child’s motor coordination and it is important to encourage the child with praise and positive expressions. As a parent/teacher you can help the child by showing him how to make marks with a crayon on your own separate piece of paper. As you demonstrate, do so at the child’s level by scribbling rather than drawing a picture.

As the child progresses he moves on to a controlled scribbling stage. This period lasts approximately one year, and now the child appears to have visual control over where he is placing marks on the page. In a few short months the child has learned how to manipulate his crayon and places marks where he wants on the page. The child is now co-relating the visual marks he is making with his physical actions. This stage usually starts at approximately two and a half years of age and here the child discovers longitudinal scribbling; the relationship between the physical movement of the child and what he sees. Try to verbalise the child’s actions, for example “I see you made a circle” while you point to a circular mark on the paper or “You used the colour black here” while you point to a black section etc. Provide colours that contrast on a page such as black, navy and brown with paper that will span the child’s arm length, 12”x18”.  A chalkboard and white chalk is also suitable at this age; the child is more interested in the marks he is making rather than the colours he is using.

As the child develops he moves into the third stage of scribbling, which is naming. This stage clearly shows that the child’s thinking has changed. Before the naming stage the child was happy with the motion of scribbling, but now he is connecting the scribbling with the world around him. The child is seeing a link between the mark he has put on the page and something that is meaningful to him in his life, a personal experience or object. As an adult you often ask the question, “What is that?” as you look at the child’s work.  This form of closed questioning may coerce a child to name his artwork out of embarrassment or because he wants to please the adult:  this can be a negative and restrictive influence on behalf of the adult.  Children at this point may be using different marks to represent different thoughts or feelings that are passing through their minds, while drawing rather than recording specific concrete events. Try to use the open phrase, “What is happening in your picture?” or perhaps you can comment on the colours used or the length of lines, rather than looking for a meaning in the artwork. If the child expresses that the mark on the page is Mummy, for example, extend the conversation by asking open questions such as “ What colour is Mummy’s hair? - What is Mummy saying?” etc. At this point it is beneficial to introduce different colours into the drawing experience - blue, yellow and red especially. These colours can now add an extra dimension to the child’s art experience.

Early representational attempts, the fourth stage of scribbling, occur when the symbols drawn by children begin to resemble the real life images.  The child at this stage has greater muscle control and also has a greater understanding of the world around him. At approximately three years of age children will attempt to draw a sun like object, before moving on to drawing radial lines out of a specific point - the start of arms and legs. You can help the child by commenting on the shape of the marks he has drawn such as “I see your line is coming out of the circle” etc, without naming the child’s drawing.

As children reach approximately four years of age they move into the representational stage of scribbling. They will draw basic people, a round form with inner shapes that they will name as eyes etc., as well as drawing stick like lines that will represent arms. The child will use this basic round form to draw other objects such as a car or an animal. As the child ages the drawings become more complex. He will often draw what he knows is there rather than what he can visually see;  this often results in some Picasso like representations! You can help to develop a child’s interest through discussing the colours and lines in the drawing as well as asking the child what he was feeling and thinking while he was drawing. You can also use this opportunity to show a child how his drawing has developed through showing him his earlier work. But most importantly praise the child for spending time on a project that he has worked hard and concentrated on.

Scribble for  toddlers is much more important than marks on a page; it is a visual way to communicate, an opportunity to interact in a meaningful way with adults in their lives and a chance to develop their coordination, creative and literacy skills. Scribble is a wonderful achievement, a milestone, a new adventure for all toddlers, embrace and enjoy it!