Understanding Children’s Development Through Drawing Stages
Before we can read, write, or talk, we are able to make our first rudimentary marks on paper; we scribble. And while an erratic scribble does not appear to be anything extraordinary, it is the first step on the amazing journey of human graphic development.
Just as there are general developmental milestones when it comes to learning, moving, speaking and playing, there are also developmental milestones when it comes to a child’s art and drawing skills.
Typically developing children show a progression of certain characteristics in their drawings as they get older. These characteristics are representative of their cognitive, emotional, social and physical changes and experiences.
Art therapists, art educators and curious parents are among those who are likely interested in learning about these drawing stages. This information helps them understand how a child is developing and how they can provide support.
My interest in child development and the drawing stages comes from being a mother of two young children and a former art therapy student. Learning about the stages of drawing development was a topic in one of my first classes in my art therapy & counseling graduate program. We read Viktor Lowenfeld’s book “Creative & Mental Growth”, which outlines 5 stages of children’s graphic development.
These are the stages I will be summarizing below. I read the 8th edition of this book which was published in 1987, and amazingly the basic concepts in this book are still the standard for understanding children’s graphic development.
Lowenfeld’s Stages of Artistic Development
While Lowenfeld designates specific ages for the progressing stages of graphic development, children usually move fluidly in between and sometimes in both directions between adjacent stages.
As they grow and develop, they may start displaying signs of moving into a more advanced stage while continuing to draw elements characteristic of a previous stage. Lowenfeld’s distinct age ranges for the various stages provide a general guideline though, and way to conceptualize children’s graphic development.
Scribble Stage (2-4 years old)
Lowenfeld explains that the beginning of the scribbling stage is all about kinesthetic exploration. That is, how a child explores the physical experience of mark making.
As children progress in this scribbling stage and develop more hand eye-coordination and fine motor skills, they start to develop more control over their marks and scribbles. This is called controlled scribbling. They can start to form basic shapes and the beginning of intentional forms and recognizable shapes emerge.
While their shapes and scribbles have no identifiable meaning to onlookers, young children may start naming aspects of their drawings. Children are unattached to their drawings and what they have created at this stage. It is all about the process and the experience.
When my toddler was in his scribble stage, he loved to stand in his learning tower at the kitchen counter or scooch around on the floor and make fast erratic scribbles on big pieces of paper.
He also loved the kinesthetic experience of repeatedly hammering markers onto paper to make dots and dashes. Often he did not even look at the paper while scribbling and dotting and dashing, showing that he was more involved in the experience of how he was creating and using his drawing tools, rather than what he was creating.
Preschematic Stage 4-7
The pre-schematic stage is perhaps the most fun stage to witness, although I am biased since I have a 4-year-old who regularly draws endearing and often comical family portraits with accompanying narration.
In this stage during the preschool years, children are experimenting with making representational forms. Figures and forms are usually floating on the page, and there are very few if any contextual features in preschematic drawings. Children draw what is important to them and they can talk about who or what they have drawn.
Drawings of people have basic body parts like wiggly stick legs and arms and a head and/or body. Young children are well known for these adorable cephalopod or tadpole people.
Some details and facial features may emerge in their drawings at this stage, but it is not the focus. For example, my 4 year old often likes to include hair detail on his faceless people. He often includes my husband’s hairy legs and my “hair ball” (bun) on top of my head. Other details like facial features, he usually leaves out unless prompted to include them.
Schematic Stage 7-9
The schematic stage of drawing is characterized by children developing schemas or symbolic representations of people, objects, and nature in their artwork. They are learning to organize concepts as they develop awareness of the world around them. This shows in their uniform and repeated depictions of the human figure and objects. Human figures usually have all their facial features and body parts.
A baseline is also often present in a child’s drawings from this stage. For example, a child may draw a row of identical flowers across a baseline, which grounds all of the figures and objects in the drawing. The presence of this baseline represents how children are becoming less egocentric and more aware of their surroundings at this age. It also becomes a point that helps integrate and describe a common relationship between everything in a drawing (verses floating objects and figures in the previous preschematic stage).
Although children are developing greater awareness of their surroundings in this stage, they are not usually drawing directly from observation.
Dawning Realism Stage/The Gang Age (9-12)
In the next stage, dawning realism or the gang age, children’s drawings become more realistic and include more detail. Children begin to try and draw from observation, rather than purely relying on their internal schemas for drawing subjects.
As they develop these observational skills, they become more self-conscious and critical of their artwork and the discrepancies between how things look in real life and what they are depicting on the page.
Children in this stage become interested in depicting details and more complicated relationships like overlapping elements in a drawing. While they are interested in drawing realistically, their drawings also reflect scenes from their imaginations.
Pseudo-naturalistic Stage (12-14)
Generally taking place around 12-14 years of age, Lowenfeld describes the pseudo-naturalistic stage. During this stage, children may become more interested in developing their artistic skills and creating realistic drawings.
They may experience frustration though, as their awareness grows of the complexities in life as well as in realistically depicting life through drawing. Despite this conflict though, children in this stage attempt to draw with realistic use of color, shading, proportions, and three-dimensional space.
How a drawing or piece of art comes out is very important to children at this stage.
The Period of Decision (14-17)
The final stage of graphic development is only explored by children who wish to continue developing their artistic skills as they develop into young adults.
This is a stage where children choose to learn to draw with more detail and visual-spatial awareness and can achieve a high level of realism if they choose to explore these concepts. They combine these technical skills with their personal styles of self-expression to create unique artworks.
Developmental Benefits of Creating Art
Encouraging children to make art helps promote growth throughout their development. Offering different art media and art activities teaches them new skills, that they can then apply to their life experiences.
Physical Developmental Benefits
Offering art materials is a wonderful way to encourage hand-eye coordination and the development of fine motor skills. Different art materials will help kids learn to apply varying motor skills and techniques to manipulate markers, paintbrushes, clay, playdough etc.
Likewise, a variety of art activities will encourage kids to use their bodies in different ways. Some art projects like painting on a big canvas require gross motor movements, while drawing on a small piece of paper requires a more detailed approach with fine motor control.
Cognitive Developmental Benefits
Helping kids learn new artistic skills encourages healthy cognitive development. As they grapple with new ways to represent forms and relationships between forms, they learn new concepts and develop their creative thinking and problem solving skills.
Children also learn about perspective-taking and what it means to create something from external observation or from a subjective internal perspective, or to see a problem from different angles. For example, doing a still-life drawing requires observational skills and external visual perception. A free drawing on the other hand may prompt imagery to emerge from internal thoughts and feelings. And doing a 3-dimensional sculptural project requires even different perspective-taking skills as a child must consider how their piece looks from different angles.
Reflecting on artwork and talking about it can also provide personal insight and help develop self-confidence and self-awareness.
Emotional Developmental Benefits
Creating art can be a wonderful way to explore, express, and reflect on emotions. Through color, art materials, and imagery, children share aspects of their emotional experiences that they don’t know how to or want to otherwise.
Different art materials can elicit various emotional experiences. For example, a child who is struggling with internalizing problems (eg anxiety and depressive symptoms) may benefit from using highly expressive and fluid art materials like paint that will encourage externalizing difficult feelings. Or perhaps from soothing and grounding materials like clay. A child who is experiencing a lot of overwhelming and chaotic feelings on the other hand, may benefit from using controlled materials like pencils and markers.
The type of art activity also has an impact on the emotional experience of creating. Activities can be highly structured to guide or contain big feelings, or open-ended to encourage emotional expression and exploration. Art therapists and art educators are trained to know what kind of activity will promote growth and offer support for different individuals.
Additionally, developing artistic skills and feeling pride and joy around creating artwork helps develop children’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Feeling good about their artwork translates to feeling good about themselves since their artwork is an extension of themselves.
Creative Expression for Healthy Child Development
When given the opportunity, children have a natural drive to create and explore through imagery and the physical process of making art. By working with different art materials and diving into interesting activities and projects, they learn about the world and themselves. They also get the chance to develop new skills and consider different perspectives and ways to create.
As my own children grow and develop, I hope to offer them as much opportunity as I can to experience the joys and benefits of making art. And with an awareness of Lowenfeld’s graphic development stages, I can help support their growth as they become capable of exploring new concepts at each new stage.
Lowenfeld, V. (Ed.) (1987). Creative and Mental Growth. Prentice Hall.
Young Children’s Activities to Encourage Creative Growth and Exploration:
Free Painting on Wooden Shapes for Creativity and Confidence
DIY Kinetic Sand Recipe
DIY Cardboard Toddler Toys
Children’s Libraries and Free Resources