This is how we do it“Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Look at toddlers banging pans, wiggling their bodies to the music, and scribbling on the floor. They are exploring their world and making their mark on it — sometimes quite literally.

But how does this early exploration turn into artistic skill? When my daughter was four, she would spend hours with a box of crayons and a stack of paper. But she didn’t draw objects that resembled anything in the human world. Instead, she would fill one page with dots and then another page with random scribbles. One week, she spent all her art time making wavy line after wavy line. I called my sister, an art educator, “When will she start drawing people or . . . anything?”

“She’s doing exactly what she should be,” Aunt Rachel assured me. “She’s exploring lines and shapes, building her fine motor skills. When she’s ready, she’ll start to put them together in creative ways.”

By the time my second child came along, I was better versed in the stages of early childhood art development. So when my daughter complains that her little brother is “doing scribble scrabble,” I remind her that her early scribblings gave her the tools she needed to draw her complicated jungle and forest scenes.

Here’s what I learned about how young artists grow:

Scribbling: Have you ever watched toddlers grip crayons in their fists? They scribble back and forth, back and forth, visibly delighted by the movement and color. Kids this age are building their grip muscles and their hand-eye coordination. It’s not about creating a finished product; they are enjoying the action. Older toddlers are more controlled and purposeful in their “scribble scrabble” (as my daughter calls it). For example, they may choose a specific color to use or choose to begin in a specific spot on the paper.

Lines and Shapes: Three-year-olds are often ready to create lines (long, short, zig-zag, wavy, curved) and shapes (especially ovals and circles). Don’t worry if they aren’t drawing recognizable objects yet. They are developing the skills they need to take their art to the next level! It’s like learning letters or notes on a piano. When they are ready, they will start to put these lines and shapes together — like building blocks — to represent people and objects.

Named Objects: Somewhere between ages three and five years old, most kids start to draw recognizable pictures. They often build off of circles first: a squiggly circle with two dots for eyes and four lines for arms and legs represents “mommy.” A circle with long lines sticking out of it might be the sun. These early pictures are something to celebrate. It means kids have achieved a brain milestone: They know that lines and shapes on a paper can be a symbol for an object in the “real world.”

Compositions: Once kids are comfortable creating objects — a person, a house, a flower, a sun — they start to put them together into scenes: a person standing next to a tree, under the sun. It’s fun to watch five- to seven-year-olds carefully pick colors that match their mental vision and play with textures, balance, and proportions. They might merge their art and writing skills with their interests, creating pictures, posters, cards, comics or books that mean something to them.

How to Give Your Young Artist Room to Grow

Keep Materials Handy: Paper, crayons, paints, boxes, paper bags, scissors, glue, playdough, and kinetic sand. You don’t need to stock all of these — even a box of crayons and some scrap paper kept at kid-level can get your artist started.

Create Together: Sometimes I use family art time to help wind down after dinner. My daughter will often pick a theme (“Let’s draw winter pictures! Let’s draw haunted houses!”) and sometimes we just get lost in coloring, finger painting, or rolling playdough between our fingers.

Praise the Process, Not Just the Product: It’s really easy to dole out general praise when your child holds up a picture for you to admire. “Nice! Great job! I love it!” But this type of praise has limits. It doesn’t teach your child anything, and it doesn’t recognize their creativity and effort. The most effective feedback emphasizes “one of three things: a child’s effort, a child’s strategies, or a child’s actions.” Aunt-Rachel-the-artist is particularly good at this. We text her pictures, and she responds with specific insights that never fail to delight the kids:

“I see swirls in the sky! It looks like it’s a windy day.”
“You used four different colors in that flower. It looks so happy and friendly.”
“You put five animals in your jungle. You must have spent a long time working on this.”
“Look at all those amazing shapes: I see circles, dots and triangles.”

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that helping my kids express their inner artist often means I give them materials and time and get out of their way. They are artists, and their vision of the world enriches my own.

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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