The development of children’s art

16 Sep

Little girl scribbling

Children’s art has a universal developmental character. The problem is though 

that, as adults, we look at the scratches and marks on paper and wonder if 

there is something wrong with our toddlers. Surely they can see that it does 

not look like anything resembling reality?

The development of art goes hand in hand with the child’s motor development 

and also the child’s perception of space. To get an idea of a baby or toddler’s perception of space we have to 

go down on our knees and even down on our tummies to look at the world and 

the space around us.

Horizontal marks

The first marks on paper is almost by accident. The baby will move the crayon 

on the paper in a horizontal fashion, even looking away while he/she is doing it. It 

sometimes looks as if the baby is as surprised by these marks as the adult.


The next phase is round scribbles that will cover the piece of paper and 

sometimes even go over the boundaries of the paper. Remember the young 

child’s awareness of space? This is the embodiment of the child starting to 

experience that there are boundaries. At first this is done in one colour; and 

day after day the child will make the same scribble usually in the same colour. 

Even if the adult provides nice thick paint brushes, the round circles will still be 

there. The only difference here is that the paint covers the circular nature of 

the paint scribble.

Scribbles with more than one colour

One morning the young artist will let go of the one colour and start using more 

than one colour. It is still a scribble, but the fact that there are more colours 

tells us that this child is in fact starting to look at the scribble. Many colours might be used.

Making smaller round shapes

The next stage of the development of children’s art is getting more and more 

exciting. The big round circle is replaced by smaller round shapes, often in one 

colour, but also sometimes in more than one colour.

Naming the scribble

The next phase is truly fantastic. One day your toddler/young child will say: 

“Look, I made a car”. You will look at the “car” and you are obliged – no it is 

your duty – to say: “Wow, I can see it is a car. We can write “CAR” underneath

 your picture”.  

Just the fact that you show appreciation inspires the young child to do it again 

and again. In this process the young child starts to draw recognisable features. 

Next time the car might have a round shape somewhere!

Head-foot men

Head foot men grow out of the small circles children draw on their art work. 

It usually starts with round shapes with maybe one eye (often the eye is 

outside the round “face” – remember the spatial perceptions?). Gradually 

the figures get facial features, while legs, feet, arms and hands are added over a 

considerable period of time. As the child becomes more proficient, more detail is 

added. A characteristic of this stage is that space is used in a floating manner. 

The head-foot man may be upside down or lying on his side. This is also an 

indication of the emerging spatial insight that will eventually be good enough 

to enable the child to read and write by the time he or she is 6 or 7.

How can you as parent, teacher or adult contribute to this fantastic, exciting 

process? Well … very little. Your task is to be like Sugata Mitra’s proverbial grandmother, saying: “Did you make this? Can you do it again? Show me.” There is no 

better reaction than this. Do not interfere, show your appreciation and stand back.

Next time I will look at the following aspects: development of realistic art, creative problem

solving as part of art, how time and space are portrayed in young children’s art 

and the role of experience as well as the art curriculum.

Remember: “Did you do this on your own? Can you show me?”



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