Scribbling can have a huge positive impact on a child’s development, not just as a pre-writing skill, but to develop language, reasoning, problem solving and relationships.
Learn what researchers have found and how we can optimise that knowledge in our homes and classrooms. There’s also a free download including templates your little ones might like to scribble on!
The essential role of scribbling
This week I read an interesting paper, published in 2016, about the role that scribbling plays in the development of imagination and cognitive function in young children. The authors are Elizabeth and Andrew Coates from Warwick University in England.
The essential role of scribbling in the imaginative and cognitive development of young children. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 2016, Vol. 16(1) 60–83. DOI: 10.1177/1468798415577871
This episode is basically a summary of their paper so I don’t take any credit for the content, unless I’ve gone off on a tangent. Because it’s a summary I’ve boiled it down to points that I feel are most the relevant and practical for teachers, parents and carers.
It’s not just about pre-writing
I was struck by a comment from the authors that many of us working with young children value scribbling, but mainly as a precursor to writing. We’re happy that they’re working on their fine motor skills, but beyond a little chat and a metaphorical pat on the head for their good work, we’re not taking the whole scribbling process as seriously as it deserves.
So what value does scribbling have according to the research?
Scribbling gives importance to a child’s narrative
When children start scribbling it isn’t possible to determine what they’re drawing unless they tell you, or show you in some way! And this discussion, whether it’s adult to child or between children is highly valuable. It can give us a glimpse into the depth of what the child is thinking that goes far beyond what is evident from the scribbles themselves.
Most kids love to scribble and chat
The research showed that most kids, not all, loved to scribble, and they loved to chat while scribbling. They want us to know what they’re imagining and where they are going with their picture. This doesn’t just tell us how the child is organising their drawing, it also gives us an insight into their cultural understanding of the world, of their relationships and dreams. It gives us understanding into how a child explores and expresses ideas.
This reminds me of one of the big reasons we encourage reading to children from babyhood… the development of vocabulary. We read a wide range of books to expose our kids to more words. We talk about what the books mean, we point to letters and make the sounds. We know that children who are read to regularly from birth have a much higher chance of attaining academic success than those that miss out.
It seems to me that encouraging children to chat about their scribbles is like a role reversal, where a child can be the one leading the conversation. What a great way to get them chatting, to be able to listen to them and ask questions, encouraging them to use all the words in their vocabulary to explain what they’re thinking.
It’s about the process not the result
In early childhood settings when we’re thinking about assessment we will often talk to kids about their pictures, and write something on the artwork to clarify what the child has drawn. But perhaps we’re not going far enough, since research is suggesting that the child’s narrative doesn’t just consist of telling us about their drawing after they’ve finished. It encompasses the whole process of planning their picture, putting pencil to paper, developing ideas and maybe changing ideas throughout the process. And while some children will know where they’re going before they start, others like to chat and discuss their ideas and use these conversations to influence their art. If we only talk to our kids at the end, or just talk about what colours they’re using, we’re missing out on gaining a greater understanding of our children, what makes them tick, what inspires them, what confuses or worries them.
It can be difficult to find the time, but encouraging young children to present their ideas in a friendly and supportive atmosphere is really great for language development.
It’s a cheap activity
And it’s cheap. We don’t have to go through reams of recycled paper. We can use little kid-sized white boards over and over, or draw with fingertips in trays of coloured rice or sand. We can encourage our parents to engage in this kind of activity with their kids. We always encourage our parents to read with their kids. Why not ask them to add some weekly drawing time? The emotional and verbal connections over time can be highly significant, especially for at-risk children.
Another value of scribbling, according to researchers, is that the scribbling stages themselves are significant.
Scribbling stages are an indication of a child’s development
The researchers identified three stages of scribbling.
- Basic scribbles: where kids draw for its own sake.
- Scribbling to express what’s going on in the child’s mind: where the child chats, often to themselves, all the way through the scribbling process. At this stage it’s impossible to understand the picture without the child’s chatter. This is a stage where we often underestimate the depth of a child’s thought processes. Even though we can’t see what the picture is, the child can have a complete narrative that goes along with it – what a great opportunity for us to engage meaningfully and with purpose, with our kids.
- Scribbles transitioning into meaningful symbols: no we’re not talking about the alphabet! A child will start to see a line or shape that looks familiar and name it (for example, ‘that’s the sun’). Then they’ll try and make that same shape over and over. Eventually the scribble morphs into what can be recognised by the child, and maybe others, as a specific object.
Let’s not underestimate a child’s thought processes
There is such an emphasis placed on cognitive development that a child’s scribbles are often not seen as significant until recognisable images appear on the page. These recognisable images give us a jumping off point for talking to our kids in more depth about their own lives and experiences.
But this approach brushes aside the learning kids are engaging in with their scribbles. Yes, they’re young, but they already hold a view of the world, of their immediate environment and the culture they’re living in. Despite their age and verbal limitations, they still want to share their story or their experience with others.
Drawing is also a way for children to extend the creative fantasy worlds of their outside play. When children draw they don’t have to be bound by reality, just like play or in books, their imaginations can take them anywhere and create any scenario. And that can tell us a lot if we can gain entry into their imaginary world.
Scribbling allows us the opportunity to respond
Respecting our kids
For children to feel respected it’s important that we take their work seriously. By listening carefully and acknowledging a child’s intelligence we demonstrate that respect and validate their efforts. And this is just as important with peer-to-peer relationships. When children are scribbling next to each other they’ll generally be talking constantly, sharing their thoughts and influencing each other’s finished product. This doesn’t just build relationships but can build respect and a sense of belonging.
Freedom to create
Another sign of respect is to allow children to choose their own subject matter because research shows that kids are much more engaged when they follow their own interests rather than when we allocate a topic.
Looking beyond the squiggles
Apparently teachers are sometimes at a loss to know what to say to kids about their scribbles, so we need to learn to look beyond the scribbles and find out why a child changed colours, or why the straight line turned squiggly. In other words, we need to try and dig down to the child’s narrative. They can have a whole imaginary world in their head that is represented by those seemingly random lines and shapes, and to get to know our children more fully we need to do our best to uncover this richness of thinking.
Respecting their finished products
Most of the children that took part in this research would declare their pictures to be finished before starting on a new picture. They were content with the finished product and did not feel anything else needed to be added. If we want to show respect towards our kids we also need to be content with their finished products. Are you tempted to sometimes ‘improve’ a child’s artwork by manipulating it in some way? All I can say is, resist that temptation!
Scribbles are letters children write to themselves
In 1955 Professor Grozinger referred to scribbles as letters that children write to themselves. I love the visual of this. Vygotsky talked about scribbling as a type of graphic speech. John Matthews said that ‘scribbles are products of a systematic investigation, rather than haphazard actions’
In other words, scribbling has merit.
Ideas for scribbling
If you’re looking for lots of creative ways for your kids to engage in mark making I highly recommend downloading a free pdf from the UK Education Department entitled Mark Making Matters.
There are tons of fun ideas for writing inside, outdoor learning, role play, water play, mathematical learning, creativity and critical thinking. After all, it is not all about sitting at a table with a pencil and a piece of paper! Kids can make marks and draw squiggles anywhere!
Mark Making Matters says that the dual combination of drawing and talking plays an essential part in the development of children’s thinking, reasoning and problem solving.
And that sounds like an excellent reason for us to engage with our children as they scribble and chat their way to higher language, fine motor and communication skills. And have a blast while they’re doing it!
Click on the following highlighted link to download your SCRIBBLING TEMPLATES. They will automatically be sent to your downloads folder or other device equivalent.
Just print the pages when you need them – use lined or unlined pages according to your child’s preference or goal, or use the lines to transcribe what’s happening according to your child!
Want to know about pre-writing skills?
THIS POST has tons of helpful information and links to many free printables.
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This podcast is part of The Education Podcast Network. Podcasts by educators. Podcasts for educators. To check out more in education, including other early childhood focused podcasts, go to edupodcastnetwork.com.
Thanks for joining me to learn more about early childhood research and I wish you happy teaching, scribbling and learning!
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