Early Childhood Education

Child Art

 

The drawings, paintings, and constructions made by young children have long intrigued artists, educators, psychologists, historians, philosophers, and parents. Over the past century, each group, viewing the same activity from their own unique perspective, has seen and interpreted child art differently. Many early researchers were impressed by the remarkable similarities among drawings made by children of the same age living in different parts of the world. These observers suggested that artistic development was a universal process through which children learn to make increasingly realistic representations as they pass through predictable stages. The evolution of drawn and modeled forms appeared to be closely aligned to other aspects of children’s development. Researchers such as Florence Goodenough and Dale Harris, for example, proposed that children’s drawings could serve as measures of intellectual maturity, while psychologists such as Karen Machover believed that they revealed emotional distress or wellbeing.

The apparent universality of children’s drawings has been regarded by some as evidence of the powerful influence of principles of image-making also found in the work of mature artists who have not been taught other ways of constructing images or objects. Other contemporary scholars suggest that culture and education play far more decisive roles, earlier than once imagined, in the evolution of children’s drawings, spurring their acquisition of multiple drawing systems within a larger repertoire of representational possibilities or languages.

Traces of these diverse orientations toward child art persist in contemporary teaching, research, and popular imagination, as reflected in ongoing discussions of the impact of adults, peers, and the surrounding culture on the process of early artistic learning. A growing number of students of children’s art now share the view, as noted several decades ago by one scholar, “If we are to understand child art we must look at what the child has represented and expressed, the conditions under which child art is made, and ourselves and others in the act of studying it” (Wilson, 1997, p. 83).

 

Stages ofArtistic Development

Though it is likely that children have always engaged in playful markmaking and graphic representation, child art was “discovered” late in the nineteenth century, when artists and scholars began to notice children making marks and images on the walls of European cities. Adult observers were immediately fascinated by the differences in complexity and realism between the drawings made by the children tall enough to reach the upper surfaces of the walls and the vigorous scribbled marks that appeared closer to the bottom. The study of child art turned quickly from the spontaneously made images produced by children as part of their play, toward the analysis of drawings on paper purposely collected by adults, often from large groups of children whose work could be compared with others of their age, nationality, and sometimes gender. Researchers found striking similarities in composition and structure of the individual components of these drawings that seemed to change with the age of the children and to persist across cultures. These characteristics were presented as developmental stages, which varied from one writer to the next in number, name, or details, but largely agreed in identifying certain landmarks of developmental progress and universal patterns of change in children’s drawings.

Among the most enduring and influential descriptions of children’s artistic development was that formulated by Viktor Lowenfeld and popularized in his book, Creative and Mental Growth, first published in 1947, with an 8th edition published in 1987. Lowenfeld described six stages of development—scribbling (ages 2-4); preschematic (ages 4-7); schematic (ages 7-9); dawning realism (ages 9-11); pseudonaturalistic (ages 11-14); and adolescence (ages 14 through 17). He believed that children’s art making was intertwined with intellectual, emotional, social, perceptual, physical, and aesthetic growth, with art as both a reflection of, and an impetus for, continued development of each of these capacities in children. Lowenfeld emphasized that children use art to construct meaning, to examine, and to represent their experiences and understandings. Thus, in describing the scribbling stage, Lowenfeld paid particular attention to the third substage of scribbling in his taxonomy, the point at which children begin to name their scribbles, noting some resemblance between marks they have made through vigorous motion and some object or event they had previously experienced. The significance of this shift in attention from the purely physical gesture of scribbling to an interest in the representational possibilities of marks also intrigued scholars from Lev Vygotsky to Merleau Ponty to Howard Gardner, each of whom shared Lowenfeld’s recognition of the naming of scribbles as harbinger of an emergent understanding of symbolism. And yet other scholars, notably Rhoda Kellogg, who studied scribbling and its relationship to the evolution of form in the drawings of preschool children, believed that the intensity and the appearance of young children’s image-making could be explained solely in terms of their interest in creating balanced abstract designs.

From the beginning of the study of child art, there has been far less agreement on the meaning and the mechanism of the changes that can be observed in children’s drawings than about the basic proposition that children’s drawings do tend to change over time. Certain characteristics seem to be perennially typical of young children’s image-making. The emergence of the figure known as the “tadpole man,” a first representation of a human resembling a potato sprouting arms and legs from an area encircling an undifferentiated head and torso, is one of these characteristics. The accumulation of figures and objects apparently floating on the page, oblivious to the force of gravity, is a very common way for young children to construct the visual narratives that mirror the free associations of their verbal accounts. Among children in the early primary years, the division of the drawing page into bands of sky and earth, with air in between, providing a narrow stage on which to place houses, trees, dogs, and people, is seen the world over, providing a logical way of depicting their sense of order in the universe of their drawings, and, perhaps, of their experiences as well. These landmarks appear frequently enough to suggest that maturation does play an important role in the acquisition of drawing skills and strategies, while individual differences among children point to the impact of experience with art media, gendered and idiosyncratic interests, and the availability of adult support and cultural models. Many of those who amassed large collections of child art early in the last century, in the midst of significant political turmoil, hoped that they had discovered the beginnings of a universal language in the ubiquitous symbols of child art. In order to preserve this innocent language, they urged parents and teachers to allow child art to unfold unfettered by adult influence or intervention. This advice was offered with great urgency in regard to the art of young children. In recent years, a substantial shift has occurred, as researchers have come to notice and value the cultural and individual differences that exist in children’s drawings, and as the focus of research has gravitated increasingly toward the process of drawing, particularly as a process that occurs for many young children in the intensely active social contexts of classrooms and communities.

 

Attitudes toward Child Art

Jo Alice Leeds (1989) suggested that attitudes toward child art change in response to changes in pervasive cultural beliefs about art and about children. When galleries were filled with large Abstract Expressionist canvases, for example, preschoolers were encouraged to paint freely at easels with large brushes and the exuberant paintings that resulted were highly prized. Wilson (1997, 2004) attributes the current retreat from the certainties of developmental stage theory as symptomatic of a larger cultural shift from the reliance on an encompassing “grand narrative” that characterized Modernist thought, to a more postmodern comfort with modest explanations, small stories that may contradict one another, but may, in doing so, reveal complexities that the grand narrative could not articulate.

 

Contemporary Perspectives on Young Children’s Art

After years in which the matter of child art seemed to be relatively well understood, its progress described in sufficient detail to guide both pedagogy and parenting, there is a resurgence of interest in understanding art in contemporary childhood. Classification of children’s drawings according to the complexity of their structure—looking, for example, at the placement of the baseline in landscapes, or the number of details in human figures—has come to seem less important and less useful as a source of knowledge than the information that can be gleaned from the content of their work.

Children’s drawings are now recognized across disciplines as important social documents, sources of information about children’s interpretations of their experiences, and ways of eliciting conversation about their interests and ideas.

With this renewed interest in the content of children’s drawings has come increased attention to the contexts, cultures, and circumstances in which children make art and the influences that come into play in that process. The recognition that drawing, for young children, is an immediate, ephemeral, and social act, and that finished drawings sometimes mask the competence of the child and the complexity of the process that brought the drawing about, recommend close observation and careful documentation of drawing events. This understanding of the importance of the conversations, gestures, and sequences of actions and decisions surrounding children’s engagement in art making informs much current theory and practice on early childhood art.

Currently, adults interested in the ways children make meaning through image making pay increasing attention to the social and performative context that surrounds young children’s artistic productions and also consider children’s agency as producers and critics of culture, rather than mere consumers. While children’s drawings have been the focus of most research and theoretical attention, newly expanded images of children’s capabilities as artists and audiences for cultural materials, including traditional art forms and contemporary visual culture, provide a broader understanding of children’s participation in the visual arts. Children’s video works, their performances, the choices they make in clothing, toys, music, and movies—artifacts of the visual and material culture of childhood—have come to be considered as sites where children make choices and meaning through visual means. This interest in the cultural context of childhood has led to interest in the kinds of art that children produce on their own or with peers, for their own purposes, beyond the work expressly sanctioned by adults in the public space of the classroom.

Practices that challenge established assumptions of how children develop in art—for example, the highly sophisticated art works that children in the preschools of Reggio Emilia routinely produce—have prompted scholars in the fields of education and developmental psychology to reconsider how and when children develop in and through making art-like things. The developmental questions have not been abandoned, but rather reframed through compound lenses that offer multiple points of view that promise to inform our understanding of how and when development happens. Despite these changes, interest in children’s drawings remains high, since young children’s drawings continue to serve as places where children strive to construct and communicate meaning through visual languages. See also Language Diversity; Symbolic Languages.

Further Readings: Bresler, Liora, and Christine Marme Thompson, eds. (2002). The arts in children’s lives: Context, culture, and curriculum. Boston: Kluwer; Kellogg, Rhoda (1970). Analyzing children’s art. Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books; Kindler, Anna M., ed. (1997). Child development in art. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association; Leeds, Jo Alice (1989). The history of attitudes toward child art. Studies in Art Education 30(2), 93-103; Lowenfeld, Viktor (1957). Creative and mental growth. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan; Wilson, Brent (2004). Child art after modernism: Visual culture and new narratives. In Elliot W. Eisner and Michael D. Day, eds. Handbook of research and policy in art education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 299-328; Wilson, Brent (1997). Child art, multiple interpretations, and conflicts of interest. In A.M. Kindler (ed.), Child development in art. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, pp. 81-94.

Christine Marme Thompson and Marissa McClure Vollrath