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The essential role of scribbling in the imaginative and cognitive development of young children

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This paper sets out to explore the thinking underpinning young children’s earliest drawings, often regarded as ‘scribbling.’ It questions whether the physical satisfaction of making marks is sufficient reward for this often repeated activity, or whether with each repetition children intend deeper meanings not apparent to the eyes of the adult beholder. The narrative, which frequently accompanies such drawings, indicates that far from being merely a mark-making activity, the scribbled work represents for children a means of communicating a story or an experience. Examination of the dual activity of drawing and talking forms the basis of a research study which highlights the contribution that observation can make towards our understanding of young children’s learning.
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DOI: 10.1177/1468798415577871
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Original Article
The essential role of
scribbling in the
imaginative and cognitive
development of young
children
Elizabeth Coates and Andrew Coates
University of Warwick, England
Abstract
This paper sets out to explore the thinking underpinning young children’s earliest
drawings, often regarded as ‘scribbling.’ It questions whether the physical satisfaction
of making marks is sufficient reward for this often repeated activity, or whether with
each repetition children intend deeper meanings not apparent to the eyes of the adult
beholder. The narrative, which frequently accompanies such drawings, indicates that far
from being merely a mark-making activity, the scribbled work represents for children a
means of communicating a story or an experience. Examination of the dual activity of
drawing and talking forms the basis of a research study which highlights the contribution
that observation can make towards our understanding of young children’s learning.
Keywords
Scribbling, narrative, young children, children’s earliest drawings, observation
Whilst not all children apply themselves to the activity of scribbling with
equal vigour, early-years educators tend to agree that it is a necessary part
of their development, both artistically and cognitively (Bhroin, 2007;
Matthews, 1999). Indeed, Kress (1997) hypothesises that at this stage the
drawing stands for both print and image as the child’s storytelling and visual
imagery is subsumed into a single multi-layered scribble, whilst Kellogg and
O’Dell (1967) stress how difficult it is for an adult to appreciate ‘the wealth of
structured, non-pictorial work which children teach themselves before they
Corresponding author:
Elizabeth Coates, Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 8EE, England.
Email: e.a.coates@warwick.ac.uk
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pictorialize’(p. 37). It would seem that the domination of cognitive develop-
ment is such that it is rare for children’s drawings to be valued until some
form of visual realism can be discerned. It is at this stage that adults start to
take notice and the appearance of an image with a semblance of reality is
greeted with praise, not only as an indication that a developmental milestone
has been reached, but also because the adult can recognize something tangible
as the basis for a question or conversation. This ploy, however, does not
recognize the learning that has taken place, nor the value of observing chil-
dren in action, as the intensity with which some children apply themselves to
the act of scribbling would seem to indicate a depth of thinking which
extends far beyond meaningless doodling.
Our research into young children’s drawings and accompanying narratives
(Coates and Coates, 2006, 2011, 2015) suggests that a more fruitful response
to the work would be to listen carefully to what the children said they were
expressing as their pictures unfolded, as the narrative which frequently accom-
panied the activity revealed aspects of their experiences variously gathered and
richly told. Over a five-year period, upwards of 220 children were studied, their
ages ranging from three to seven years. Forty-seven children made scribble
drawings at some stage and more than 200 examples were collected. These
aroused our interest, for having been present whilst they were produced and
having transcribed the recordings made during each activity, it became apparent
that far more than merely exploring mark-making was taking place.
Listening to children as they draw, whilst helping the adult understand the
thinking taking place, also reveals the imaginative play in which the child is
involved. Drawing, even at the scribble stage, enables children to enter a realm
of fantasy as they become characters from stories or other media outlets,
taking the level of their play beyond what is possible in the real world.
David (1999) suggests that in play children are testing out their ideas and
knowledge. This is extended by Wood and Hall (2011) who feel that drawing
is often part of play, whilst our research found that children were continuing
their role-play into their drawings, raising it to a level not possible in the
physical setting (Coates and Coates, 2006, 2011). The function of drawing, in
this instance, was as an integral part of play, for the accompanying dialogue
illustrated how storytelling and drawing were interwoven. Perhaps this inter-
weaving of story and drawing can be seen more clearly in the works of
children who have progressed beyond the scribbling stage, but scribbling
pictures, together with an accompanying narrative, demonstrates an enthusi-
asm and a need, to communicate. It would seem that many children, rather
than aimlessly wafting the drawing tool over the surface of the paper have
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reasons for making decisions and juxtaposing various elements and colours
together to make what is both a visually pleasing and dynamic picture. The
surety with which many of these were produced points to a deliberate process
as circles, zigzags and spirals overlap to form complex compositions. There
seemed to be a purpose or ‘picture’ in the child’s mind, an attempt, perhaps,
to communicate that is similar to the babbling of young children as they seek
to interact with those around them. Grozinger calls such scribblings ‘letters
that children write to themselves’ (1955, p. 29) whilst Vygotsky (cited in
Hope (2008: 57) regards these early drawings as a form of graphic speech. If
this is the case, the developmental aspects of this activity achieve significance
and should be considered alongside the end product. Certainly the notion of
communication presupposes the development of thinking since decisions
need to be made about what is being communicated, whilst imagination
enables children to recall aspects of their perceived world as they attempt to
represent them. Matthews (2003) stresses the role of language in helping
organize a drawing and we found echoes of this in almost every scribbling
instance as children used talk to inform, explore and express their ideas.
All our data were collected in educational settings with pairs of children
rather than with individuals (for full details of the methodology employed
see Coates and Coates, 2006) as our previous experience, both as educators
and researchers, led us to the understanding that the quality of data collected
when working with young children depended upon them feeling at ease. We
employed, therefore, the technique of grouping often used when interviewing
young children. The investigation was open-ended and the direction, content
and duration of each episode were largely determined by the children. They
were supplied with drawing media and asked to make images of subjects of
their own choice. The children’s teachers were not involved as the researchers
worked with the children, immersing themselves in the context in which the
drawings were being made, not as detached observers but as participant obser-
vers, playing an active part in the children’s conversations, and acting as a focus
for their questions and insights when the need arose (Coates and Coates, 2006,
2011, 2015). Most of the dialogue which accompanied the drawing episodes,
however, was between the children. Such dialogue together with the finished
scribble pictures provided a rich source of information not only about the way
they were completed but also about the thinking underpinning the develop-
ment of the drawings. Our presence throughout was also important in that it
provided an understanding of the context in which their works were produced.
Jolley (2010) points to the significance of the researcher’s direct observation,
when he states that this ‘may provide us with a new theoretical framework for
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understanding children’s development in the twenty-first century’ (p. 318). The
hypothesis that children’s scribbling has purpose, content and meaning, as they
move beyond Hall’s (1917: 514) ‘quiddle’ stage of pure physical enjoyment,
the magical process when children discover that they can make something
appear on paper which was not there before, forms the basis of our discussion
and analysis.
Attitudes to scribbling in the literature on drawing
development
Scribbling, as an area in its own right, receives little attention in the literature.
Kellogg’s seminal work, What Children Scribble and Why (1955), was produced
initially as a ‘vanity’ publication, although it was produced commercially in
1959 and is widely referenced. This, and her second publication, Analysing
Children’s Art, first published in 1969, are still the most important works to
address the area seriously. Other publications, such as Gardner’s Artful Scribbles
(1980) and Grozinger’s Scribbling, Drawing and Painting (translated into English in
1955), whilst including the term in the title, address the area as part of a
wider examination of children’s art. The main literature, however, is drawn
from three different sources: psychologists, art educators and early years edu-
cators, each with a different point of view and perhaps understandable bias,
and the examination of these sources provides a wide and thought-provoking
base against which to discuss our findings.
There is consensus amongst the psychologists whose work we accessed
(from Sully, 1896 to Jolley, 2010) that the earliest scribbles are the result of
physical actions, the enjoyment of muscular movements which leave traces on
a surface. Anning and Ring (2004), Hall (2009) and Wright (2010, 2011)
regard such physical trace-making as natural to the young child, an instinctive
response likened by Hall to babbling. Certainly for very young children it
would seem it is the movement that is important, with the resulting marks
appearing to be almost incidental. Alland (1983), in his study of children
from six cultures, calls this domination of motor activity over the production
of visual patterns Kinetic Scribbling. This term is significant since it does not
negate the importance of the visual result. Once children begin to make
connections between actions and marks, however, Hall (1917) suggests
they enter what he regards as the scribble stage. It is at this point that edu-
cators become interested, and although some concede that scribbling is an
important and constructive period of exploration and development (Gaitskell
and Hurwitz, 1975; Jameson, 1968; Morgan, 1988), there is a tendency to
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regard its function merely as a way of developing marks and achieving phys-
ical control as a pre-requisite for work at the next level of symbolic represen-
tation (Lindstrom, 1957; Melzi, 1967). This notion of mark-making echoes
the views of those who see this stage as a prerequisite for writing rather than
acknowledging its vital role in children’s expressive and imaginative develop-
ment, thereby frequently relegating the activity to the level of time-filler.
Some (Dyson, 1993; Kress, 1997; Pahl, 1999) suggest that to the young
child ‘writing might even be drawing, as the child ‘‘draws’’ a story or
‘‘writes’’ a page of looped lines’ (Pahl, 1999: 56). In England this mixed
message about the relationship between writing and drawing is reinforced
by government guidelines which Hall (2009) believes provide contradictory
views about the value of drawing, on the one hand seeing it as a means of
communicating ideas, feelings and experiences, whilst on the other regarding
it as mark-making and a preparation for writing. Wright (2010, 2011), how-
ever, feels that the act of drawing is much more than a pre-writing skill, for
her research has led to the belief that it helps children to gather thoughts and
represent ideas as a form of visual storytelling which later supports the child’s
transition to a more formal understanding of both literacy and numeracy. This
reflects the English government’s document ‘Markmaking Matters’, which is
of the opinion that the dual combination of drawing and talking plays an
essential part in the development of children’s thinking, reasoning and prob-
lem-solving (DCSF, 2008). Teachers, however, often see this earliest form of
drawing not as a form of communication, but as a form of expression, the end
product of which is invariably ignored (Kellogg, 1955; Kress, 1997).
Likewise, the majority of art educators pay little attention to children’s early
scribblings, since the focus of most of their publications is on the older child,
in England children over seven years who are entering Key Stage Two of the
National Curriculum. Indeed most children will have passed the scribbling
stage by the time they reach compulsory school age (in England five years of
age) and many teachers would not recognize these early drawings as an
important part of a young child’s development in art.
The most damning rejection of the contribution that scribbling can make to
children’s learning is made by Barnes (2002), who reduces its status to an activity
which is repeated merely for fun, and when, occasionally, images such as of
people, boats and houses appear, they are found accidently. He is particularly
critical of children’s integrity and accuses them of inventing subjects, even when
none exist, to satisfy adult curiosity. It is not surprising that adults are incapable of
recognizing children’s subjects in their scribbles, but if his assertion is credible it
negates the possibility that children, at this stage, are capable of making informed
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decisions based on experience, as well as signifying their intentions. On the other
hand, however, Morgan (1988) discusses the way that young children become
engrossed in this activity, developing ideas and laying the foundation for the
enhancement of language and writing skills. The development of this sense of
dignity or self-worth is of paramount importance if young children are to develop
the confidence freely to express their ideas and feelings. If scribbling is not
valued, therefore, this message will inevitably be conveyed to young children
through the attitude of those around them. As Bland (1968) stresses, ‘the child
needs respect in order to go forward with confidence in what he has to say and in
his mastery of the means to say it’ (p. 48).
Sully (1896), one of the first psychologists to examine the drawings of
young children, saw these early attempts as a kind of play. His largely dismis-
sive attitude towards the quality of the scribbled outcomes, however, should
be considered in context for it was not until the 1930s that the contribution of
play to the intellectual and social development of the young child was fully
realized and integrated into the child-centred early-years curriculum (Bruce,
1991). Sully’s notion of play is reinforced by later studies, for Arnheim
(1956) refers to the child’s need for constant movement when drawing as
‘gamboling on paper’ (p. 136) and Egan (1999), whilst mainly referring to
the spoken word, stresses the importance of the sounds which may accom-
pany such ‘gamboling’ saying that they are ‘alive and participatory ... charged
with the direct energy of the speaker’s body’ (p. 19).
It is suggested by Stern (1924) that the awakening interest in the marks
produced at this early stage is not because they are intended to be representational
but because of the satisfaction of creation. Alland (1983) feels that children are, in
a sense, playing with form, which eventually leads to a satisfaction with the marks
made and a desire to repeat them. His theory that ‘certain aesthetic principles
(what might be called ‘‘good form’’) are universal and coded in the human brain’
(p. 2) is reiterated by Matthews (2003), who feels that young children’s drawings
are ‘guided by an aesthetic sense, involving feelings and intuitions about har-
mony, balance, composition and design’ (p. 68). Such thinking provided a basis
for discussion when conducting our analysis, emphasizing the significance of
studying the narrative alongside the drawings. This is supported by Atkinson
(2009) who questions Lowenfeld’s and Brittain’s (1970) contention that
during the ‘scribble’ stage (2–4 years) children are not making any representa-
tional responses in their drawings (cited in Atkinson, 2009: 143). Willats
(2004), whilst acknowledging that children’s earliest scribbles may not be
truly representational, draws upon Luquet’s ‘fortuitous realism’ category (p.
160), stating that at some point the child recognizes an image in the scribble
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and seeks to repeat this. Although Luquet (1927/2001) does not use the term
‘scribbling’ but calls it ‘trace making’ throughout his writing, his category relates
to the child perceiving a resemblance to an object which is subsequently named.
He suggests that ‘the child is well aware of its imperfections and thus naturally
tries to produce a better resemblance’ (p. 89). Such resemblances may have their
roots in the variety of lines the child produces as a result of kinetic scribbling, and
many psychologists refer to loops, zigzags, horizontal and vertical lines in their
studies of children’s drawings (Lowenfeld, 1939; Strauss, 2007; Sully, 1896;
Willats, 2004). This is the stage Burt (1962) refers to as purposive pencilling
when children seek to repeat the likeness they have named and so begin to move
towards representation. At this point the relevance of observing the young child
in action becomes more obvious since not only can a researcher note the way a
scribble is built in layers or patches (Willats, 2004), but it is also possible to
follow the child’s train of thought as either the intention to draw an object is
announced at the start of the drawing or an idea occurs as the drawing progresses
(Lowenfeld, 1939; Luquet, 1927/2001). Jackson (1994, cited in Matthews,
1999: 94) calls the language a child uses whilst drawing ‘a window on con-
sciousness’, enabling the listener to gain some understanding of the thought
process underlying the representation. Without the insights provided by such
utterances, any attempt at analysing the scribble drawing of a child at Burt’s
purposive pencilling stage can only be partially successful, since the level of
representation inevitably falls far below the image in the child’s eye.
The following section focuses upon the images produced by the children in
our research sample, involving identifying different stages of scribbling as a
precursor to an examination of the children’s social and cultural understanding.
The stages of scribbling as identified through our research
Since all drawing sessions took place within education settings, our expect-
ation was that the number of scribble drawings produced would be low. This
proved to be far from the truth as 200 of the 800 drawings were identified as
scribbles. An examination of these showed a variation in stages from Hall’s
‘wigwagging’ (1917: 549), a means of developing hand-eye coordination,
through purposeless play, to a transitional stage leading to symbolic represen-
tation. These drawings, therefore, were categorized as follows:
.basic scribbles – drawing for its own sake;
.scribbling as a means of representation as evidenced by language;
.the transition to symbolic representation.
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A discussion of the characteristics of the drawings in relation to these cate-
gories forms the basis of this section. Our analysis was informed by Kelloggs
(1955) 20 basic scribbles and scribble mixtures which she found occurred over
and over again in her study of young children’s drawings. She regarded the
mastering of these 20 scribbles as supremely important since she felt that, once
learnt, the child would have ‘ ...acquired the basic markings out of which all
subsequent drawing or painting will be developed for the rest of their lives’ (p.
14). At this point it should be emphasized that whilst all drawings displayed
elements of her 20 basic scribbles, each one was considered separately and
placed in what was felt to be the most appropriate of our categories.
Basic scribbles – Drawing for its own sake
Atkinson (2009) raises a question: when we scrutinize a scribble drawing,
recognising only drawn lines and blocks of colour, how do we know that the
child is not attempting to represent something? The defining characteristic of this
category was either the absence of language as the children drew, or the language
used related only to technical aspects suchascolourorline.Itwasimpossibleto
know whether there were other motivations besides physical pleasure. What
became increasingly clear as indicated by our field notes was that most of
these scribbles were completed in a short time span and evidenced a lack of
concentration, suggesting the children were not fully engaged. These drawings,
therefore, could only be examined as basic scribbles. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
given the age of our sample, we found only five instances where a child’s drawing
consisted of a single scribble. Much more common was Kellogg’s notion of
combinations of these (scribble mixtures), for 35 drawings consisted of several
different types of scribbles and a further 17 fell into her category of diagrams and
scribbles as a line was drawn round a set of scribble mixtures.
George’s (3:11) drawing (Figure 1) was a prime example of a scribble mixture
as he started by selecting a black pen and drew a long continuous line starting at
the bottom right-hand corner and curving round the edges of the paper before
turning towards the centre. He then took a blue pen and drew a line inside the
black one, before taking an orange pen to complete his drawing. No language
accompanied the activity which was completed in less than 3 minutes.
Scribbling as a means of representation as evidenced by language
In this category our observations of the drawing process confirmed the import-
ance of language, for the majority of the children talked as they drew, sometimes
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naming what they intended to draw before starting and sometimes naming it on
completion. The children who named what they intended to draw fell into two
camps – those who kept to the same idea throughout (16 children) and those
who changed their minds as the drawing progressed (12 children). Cox (2005)
suggests that this narrative is essential in helping the onlooker understand ‘both
the meaning and necessity of the marks’ (p. 120). Abigail (3: 10) illustrated this
by explaining each stage of her drawing, starting by making a curved ‘road’ in
purple around the edge of the paper, adding green (centre of paper) to show ‘the
moon shining on the road.’ The pink zigzag lines drawn in a circular motion
around the edge of the paper are bridges, ‘A bridge to get over the stream. I’ve
done lots of bridges so people can get over the stream and a bridge in the middle.
I’ve really done the bridge cos people can get over the river.’ Having drawn the
sun with rays in a corner of the paper, Abigail moved to the centre where she had
drawnthegreenmoonshine.Shethenexplainedthattheverticalpurplelines
were rain: ‘That’s rain and the sun is there. I’m mixing up the green to make it
not dark anymore cos it’s sunny. It’s sunny and rainy over there.’ She then added
purple to the green to indicate the rain and sun together (Figure 2).
Figure 1. George (3:11) A scribble mixture.
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The transition to symbolic representation
At some point during the scribbling stage, children will see amongst the lines
a resemblance to an object or figure and will seek to repeat this representation
over and over again. This is the phase that Luquet (1927/2001) refers to as
‘fortuitous realism’ (pp. 85–92), the chance likeness to something the child
recognizes and therefore names. As the child repeats the shape it is refined
until, given the clues contained in the narrative, elements can be identified.
Close scrutiny of our collection of scribble drawings and narratives revealed
that the work of 18 children fell into this transition stage, for whilst their
pictures were predominantly scribbles they also contained recognizable
images such as faces, tadpole people and suns.
One of the most intriguing transition drawings, however, was made by
James (4:6) (Figure 3). His initial intention was to draw ‘dough’, beginning
with two curved lines on the left-hand side of his page. This was followed by a
strong black line which mirrored the shape of the outer one before curving
Figure 2. Abigail (3:10) ‘The moon shining on the road.
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across the page. At this point James recognized the shape he had produced
saying, ‘Mmm, that’s a beak!’ and as if to reinforce this realization he drew a
black circle with a red dot in the middle, perhaps as an eye. This was followed
by the red zigzag at the top of the picture leading from the line forming the
beak. All this was drawn with great deliberation and he then identified his
image as a ‘cockerel.’ A reversion to his original idea followed. Both James and
his friend chose two pens and drew continuous swirling lines as James
announced ‘I’m going to make dough, William.’ The element of competition
continued as they raced to see who could colour the fastest until William said
‘We’re both as fast as each other, aren’t we.’ James completed his drawing, but
on looking at it he realized that he had omitted the feet saying, ‘Oh, no I
haven’t put the feet on,’ as he hastily added them. Although the completed
picture is recognizable as a cockerel, it needs to be examined closely in order
to ascertain this. Without the observation notes and narrative, this transition
element could easily have been missed and James’s moment of recognition
would have passed unnoticed.
Figure 3. James (4:6) ‘A cockerel.
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The significance of spoken language as a means by which the
content of young children’s scribble drawings can be better
understood
The literature tends to dismiss the role of scribbling in the expressive and
cognitive development of the young child and ignores the possibilities that
dialogue might offer, preferring to focus on the physical aspects of develop-
ment. If we accept the premise that the act of scribbling is relevant to the
development of hand–eye co-ordination and fine motor control, then how
can we disregard narrative’s contribution to our understanding of children’s
expressive and cognitive development? Our research highlights the central
role that spoken language plays as a means by which children’s thinking
may be known and therefore examined and analysed.
The following discussion explores how listening to children’s narratives
both informed and enhanced the researchers’ understanding of the process
and their interpretation of the finished work. Not only does this narrative act
as an accompaniment to the drawing activity, but in many cases it shapes the
way the drawing progresses, since as Matthews (2003) suggests children
provide detailed commentaries, often to themselves, about what they are
doing and where they are going. Indeed such commentaries, similar to the
narratives accompanying representational drawings, illustrate different aspects
of children’s understanding of the socio world which they inhabit. These are
discussed under the following categories:
.scribbling as a focus for social interaction;
.scribbling in relation to themes from the media;
.kinetic activity.
Scribbling as a focus for social interaction
Since our research involved children working in pairs, some form of social
interaction was anticipated. It was often stimulated by the marks each child
made, with the children frequently commenting on each other’s images,
asking questions, responding to the subject matter and making suggestions
about the way forward. Boyatzis and Albertini (2000) refer to the significance
of copying, suggesting that children may be ‘inspired by or directly imitate a
peer’s thematic content, technical features and meaning’ (p. 44). In our study
both children often became immersed in the story being revealed in one of
the drawings. This was the case in the dialogue between Heather (4:3) and
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Mae (4:6) as Mae started to draw ‘a pink dolphin’ and Heather copied and
extended the idea (Figure 4).
M: ‘This is a pink dolphin. This is a smiley dolphin ... It’s a funny dolphin
but it’s got a funny mouth.
H: ‘Yes, cos it’s a smiley mouth. This is his mouth (refers to own drawing).
It is a little mouth. Yes, it’s a smiley one. Now I need ....’
M: ‘Bet it’s a big one.
H: ‘Yes ...no ...this one’s a baby one.
Whilst Mae’s drawing had moved beyond the scribbling stage, Heather’s
consisted mainly of multiple vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines using a
variety of colours including the pink and orange mentioned in the following
narrative.
H: ‘And this is – oh no! – the dolphin’s trapped. Oops, now the mummy
dolphin needs to come and rescue him ...I need some grey. This is the line
for the path. There that’s the nose. Oh I think there can be ...that’s the
spot ...that’s a dot and that’s those. That’s the thing to do down, all the
way down ...I think that’s the path as well. These are the path, that’s the
Figure 4. Heather (4:3) ‘This is a smiley dolphin.’
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path as well (black roving lines). These go down there. I don’t know what this
is going to be ....’
Mae and Heather continued drawing and talking as Heather put orange on
her pink dolphin ‘cos he loves orange,’ finally finishing by explaining to the
researcher that: ‘that’s the pink dolphin as well and that’s the orange
one ...that’s the duck, the orange duck. Think that’s the swan. That’s a
nanar (?) opening all by itself (laughs). There’s nobody opening it. Maybe
this is the line of the path. I’m done.
Although it may seem that Mae’s spoken contribution was small, it stimu-
lated the subject matter and consequently Heather’s drawing and storyline.
Cox (2005) in her observations of two children drawing together found
similar reactions as they responded to each other’s marks and topics of con-
versation. Her notion that such children were ‘conversing’ through the draw-
ings (p.118) as well as through the spoken word is one that our findings
support, as we frequently found evidence of this in the representational draw-
ings collected. However, in the scribble drawings, it was the spoken word that
was most influential. Such influence was commented upon by Engel (1995)
who, when writing about children’s stories, found that peers provided feed-
back on what might improve a story by asking questions or suggesting add-
itions, whilst Jolley (2010) cites the work of Yamagata who found that social
interaction had a significant role to play in the sequential development of
subject matter.
Scribbling as an extension of role-play in relation to themes from the media
Cox (2005) suggests that children use drawing to help them define reality and
create a sense of order, as they attempt to come to terms with the complexities
of their experiences of the media. Egan (1999) points out that in the digital
age children’s environments incorporate books, television, video, DVD and
computers as well as families, local environments and communities, and sug-
gests that imaginative play can reflect all of these. Such an idea is extended by
Marsh (2005), who feels that these provide a bridge between ‘real’ and
imagined worlds. Hanna (4:4) and Freya (4:6) drew upon this imagined
world in their pictures of ‘vampires’ and ‘goblins.’ Their dialogue was in
the form of a story as they included references to ghosts and ‘baddies’,
providing an example of drawing being used as an extension of fantasy play.
The narrative which accompanied Cain’s (5:5) drawing of ‘A Black Ranger’
(a character in Power Rangers, a film and children’s television series) provided
strong evidence of the influence of the media. The drawing consisted of a grid
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in pencil on which were superimposed four sets of multiple horizontal lines,
two in pencil and two in green felt-tip pen, surmounted by multiple diagonal
lines in brown (Figure 5). The subject was clearly defined from the outset:
‘I’m drawing a Black Ranger, the Dawn and Thunder One ...I mean the Power
Rangers one, the Black Ranger and the Dawn ones on the front...It’s a D.V.D.
and its got a Power Ranger’s face.’ The brown scribble was identified as: ‘That’s
the gun what shoots, a big gun, a big, big gun ...It’s a gun on a tank, they
shoot bullets ...and a Bren gun ....’ On completion, however, Cain examined
the result and said in a disillusioned voice: ‘Doesn’t look like a Tank really, do
it? It’s not finished, I just want to swop over to start again.’ His disappointment
Figure 5. Cain (5:5) ‘A black ranger.
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with the end result reflected, perhaps, a dawning realization that his scribbles
were insufficient to represent the objects in his imagination, but the excite-
ment with which he talked about his subject matter revealed knowledge and
understanding which far outstripped his ability to invent credible symbols.
Kinetic activity: The graphic representation of actions and the use of body
language as an extension of play
Fox (cited in Hall and Martello, 1996) discusses how a child moves from making
gestures when describing or enacting something, to representing that action in
scribbles and drawings. In our research there were two types of activity that could
be described as kinetic. The first relates to the way that young children’s drawings
reflect movement as scribbles whirl, zigzag and stutter across the page. Wright
(2007) refers to these as ‘action lines’, a graphic device to indicate movement (p.
15). Andrew (3:6) (Figure 6) drew a track with an engine running along it
saying, ‘that’s the track, that’s the engine,’ indicated by short vertical lines and a
long horizontal one. A series of dots represented the movement of the engine
whilst a vertical line was the ‘smoke coming out of the chimney.’ Dyson (1993)
talks about the importance of adults listening to the meanings of these early
‘action drawings’ and it was certainly the case that it was only Andrew’s narrative
which made it possible to identify them.
The second form of kinetic activity was a more physical one as children’s
body language aligned with their oral language to create a scribble which
was an extension of role or fantasy play (Bhroin, 2007; Wright, 2010).
Thus, Wolf and Perry (cited in Cox, 1992: 18) describe the crashing
noises made by a child as she increased the speed of the tangled lines she
drew saying ‘Car going, going, going, CRASH!’ Matthews (1999) suggests
that this link between utterances and movement across the paper could be a
form of ‘writing the sounds’ (p. 32). Although there were a number of
instances, in our research, of children continuing play episodes or re-
enacting actual experiences, many of these related to representational draw-
ings. There were, however, some examples of this type of kinetic activity
within the scribble narratives. Luke (4:6) and his friend Martin (3:11)
started by drawing boomerangs, a theme that they had followed on a pre-
vious occasion. Following Martin’s mention of dot-to-dot pictures, Luke
began to sing ‘dot, dot, dot, dotty, dotty, dotty’ as he made his pen leap
acrossthepageasaseriesofdotssaying‘Immakingtracksnow.’Aftera
slight digression to discuss how to write the letter ‘L’ Luke returned to the
idea of making tracks, this time using pink dots and singing ‘Dot, dot, dotty,
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dotty, dot, dot, Doctor Who, Doctor Who, dot, dot,’ before saying, ‘I’m
making tracks, I am.’ After looking at his friend Martin’s (3.11) drawing of
boomerangs, he incorporated these making whooshing noises as he did so,
lifting his pen at each ‘whoosh’ (Figure 7).
Conclusions and recommendations
Our findings challenge the mindset of many working with young children
who feel that scribbling is only valuable as a precursor to writing. It was
obvious from the length of time many of our children spent on their draw-
ings, the care with which they made each mark and the thoughtfulness with
which they selected colours that the act of scribbling was personally signifi-
cant. It is essential, therefore, that adults respond to the seriousness with
which children undertake this activity and show that they understand and
value not only the end product but also the process of thinking, conceptualiz-
ing, problem-solving and decision-making which has led to its successful
completion. The following conclusions and recommendations are based
upon data which confirm our belief that drawing is fundamental to young
Figure 6. Andrew (3:6) ‘That’s the track, that’s the engine.’
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children’s development and include recommendations for those working with
young children. These are outlined under the following subheadings:
.the status of children’s narrative;
.the significance of the scribbling stage;
.the role of interaction and observation during the scribbling process;
.responding to children’s work.
The status of children’s narrative
The essence of this project was to explore how children’s narrative made it
possible for adults to come to understand the meaning and conceptual richness
of scribbled drawings, which would normally be unavailable. Throughout, there-
fore,wehavefocusedontheroleofnarrativeandemphasizedtheimportanceof
according it a high status in educational settings. Our findings demonstrate that
the rich language accompanying young children’s scribble drawings reveals a
breadth of understanding and thinking which goes far beyond the surface level
of the image itself. The data reflect the children’s need to communicate with
Figure 7. Luke (4:6) ‘I’m making tracks.
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detailed commentaries about what they are doing and where they are going,
which provide insights not only into the organization of the drawing but also into
the child’s cultural understanding of the world. Thus, we found Hanna (4:4) and
Freya (4:6) showing their awareness of the media with their pictures of ‘vam-
pires’ and ‘goblins.’ Their dialogue, which explored the nature of these creatures
by entering into a form of fantasy play, supports Bhroin (2007) who makes
connections between art, play and fantasy, seeing the child using drawing as a
medium for extending play into the realms of the imagination. The intensity of
this involvement is reflected by the kinetic activity of some of our research sample
as their drawings were accompanied by gestures, whoops and cries, such as
Luke’s (4:6) whooshing boomerangs (see Figure 7). Such activity confirms the
research findings of Wright (2011) and Dyson (1993) who both highlight the
significance of such total immersion as an indication of the depth of children’s
thinking. At a time when the requirement, at least in England, is for early-years
professionals constantly to assess young children, the narrative accompanying
their drawing provides evidence of achievement across a range of developmental
areas.
The significance of the scribbling stage
Our examination of the scribble drawings in relation to the literature led to the
conclusion that most of the children were in the advanced scribbling stage,
since they largely incorporated Kellogg’s (1959) scribble mixtures in their
work. Their actions were deliberate and often signalled by a statement of inten-
tion relating either to the selection of colours or to particular images. This level
is significant in that it illustrates the movement away from mark-making for its
own sake to an awareness that marks may also be used for representation. This
should transform our thinking about scribbling in relation to its potential as a
form of graphic speech (Vygotsky, cited in Hope, 2008). Heather’s (4:3) draw-
ing of dolphins consists of multiple vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines but
her identification of each dolphin by its colour shows an intention to commu-
nicate a storyline through her picture (see Figure 4).
The place of interaction and observation during the scribbling process
The potential of drawing as a social activity is one which influenced the design
of our research and stemmed from our experience of working with and
observing young children over many years. The verbal commentary, which
frequently accompanied the drawing, intensified when more than one child
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participated as ideas were exchanged, avenues explored and suggestions made.
Acting as participant observers proved fascinating, for although we were
absorbed in making notes and recording the conversation, occasionally we
were drawn into the discussion either to answer questions or to approve ideas.
From our observations it was obvious that for many children, but not all, the
essence of this activity was the way that talk and drawing interacted with each
other ‘as parallel and mutually transformative processes’ (Cox, 2005: 123). It
is important, therefore, that in an educational setting where professionals are
generally only conversant with the child’s reactions to the resources provided
and their interplay with other children, the critical insights offered by listen-
ing to and closely observing a drawing activity must be stressed.
Responding to children’s work
Taking children’s work seriously, whatever the subject or type of activity, is
extremely important if they are to feel that their efforts are respected and
highly regarded. Communication between adults and children includes listening
to what they are saying, respecting their intellectual integrity and reinforcing that
scribbling is regarded as an exciting, serious and stimulating activity. Although
there were a few children in our research sample who were entirely uninterested
in drawing, the vast majority entered into the activity with enthusiasm. Watching
and listening to these children made the observer aware of their depth of under-
standing, and their commitment to the activity was often overwhelming. It may
be difficult for the professional in an educational setting to recognize the content
in these non-representational drawings, particularly when other children demand
their attention, but time spent talking to children about their pictures and actively
recognizing the seriousness with which they have approached the task can be
repaid handsomely as they blossom and approach each new activity with added
confidence. What our research tells us is that if children are allowed to make
decisions about subject matter rather than having it dictated, the depth of their
involvement increases significantly.
As adults we sometimes have a problem responding to a child’s scribble,
even though we have observed their progress. Matthews (2003) suggests that
we need to learn to see, to understand the thinking behind each change of
colour and each varying shape. If we do this, he says, we will know what to
say. This came across strongly in our research for the children involved us in
their deliberations, not expecting us to tell them what to do but informing us
of their decisions, asking opinions and taking time to consider our responses
in a way similar to the responses of their peers. In most cases the completed
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picture appeared to satisfy the child who often declared it was ‘finished’
before embarking on another one. The conviction on a child’s face indicated
that there was a ‘rightness’ or ‘balance’ to the drawing, which excluded fur-
ther additions. This aspect of our study led us to question the way some
professionals treat children’s art works, and as Matthews (2003) opines, ‘It
is grossly insensitive to manipulate and interfere with children’s work, [by]
sticking things on it, cutting it up, repainting it and generally communicating
to the child that their efforts are inadequate’ (p. 139). Having seen the care
with which children produce their drawings we can only concur.
Finally
Our research into scribbling has highlighted the significant role that this
activity plays in children’s development and emphasized the importance of
the accompanying narrative. This article sets out to examine our findings,
reflecting upon their contribution to the existing pool of knowledge. Our
conclusions have been discussed throughout and their value for those working
with young children considered. These are summarized as follows:
.the rich language accompanying young children’s scribble drawings reveals a
breadth of understanding and thinking which goes far beyond the surface level
of the image itself;
.young children possess a facility with language which outstrips their representa-
tional ability. Their need, therefore, to name things and begin to tell stories and
describe experiences is fundamental as a requirement for learning development;
.spoken language plays a central role as a means by which children’s thinking may
be known and therefore examined and analysed;
.listening to children’s narrative can both inform and enhance the observer’s under-
standing of the developing process and their interpretation of the finished product;
.communication between adult and children includes listening to what they are
saying, respecting their intellectual integrity and regarding scribbling as an excit-
ing and stimulating activity;
.the detailed commentaries children provide about what they are doing and where
they are going is essential to their thinking;
.narrative reveals different aspects of children’s understanding of the social and
cultural world which they inhabit and enables the observer to begin to make
sense of the thinking underpinning their drawings;
.it is important to recognise the potential of drawing as a social activity, as peers
provided feedback on what might improve a story by asking questions or sug-
gesting additions, whilst social interaction often had a significant role to play in
the development of subject matter;
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.scribbling is used as an extension of fantasy play;
.children move from making gestures when describing or enacting something to
representing that action in early scribbles and drawings;
.the final part of the scribbling stage is significant as it marks a movement away
from mark-making for its own sake to an awareness that marks can be used for
representation.
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... Because early composing encompasses what children want to communicate about the marks, drawings, or letters they employ in writing, it begins developing long before transcription skills are mastered . Beginning in kindergarten, the Common Core State Standards recommend that children be allowed to use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose as drawing and writing share similar processes (Coates & Coates, 2016;Pinto & Incognito, 2021). ...
... Second, 19% of teachers (n = 9) provided responses for Ava's writing sample that could not be coded for a writing component (e.g., Ava drew pictures instead of writing). These responses considered this sample to be drawing but not writing, an idea that is in contrast to research-based understandings of writing development (Coates & Coates, 2016; Dyson, 2010). The practices of these two groups of teachers are examined further in research question 3. ...
... However, nearly one-fifth of teachers did not consider drawing to be a part of writing, though we know children draw to reflect their ideas long after they begin to use transcription skills with accuracy (Kim et al., 2015). Drawing and writing share similar processes and children use or revert to drawing (or combining drawing and writing) while engaged in writing processes (Coates & Coates, 2016;Pinto & Incognito, 2021). Further, encouraging young children to draw as part of writing instruction can be beneficial for writing development (Mackenzie & Veresov, 2013). ...
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This study examined preschool teachers’ writing knowledge and how this knowledge relates to classroom writing practices. Head Start teachers (N = 47) across two states participated by completing a knowledge questionnaire in which they responded to three vignettes and samples of preschool children’s writing. Teachers’ writing practices were gathered and coded from half-day video observations. Questionnaire responses were iteratively coded, first, using a set of a priori developed codes, derived from well-established theories of writing and including subcomponents of writing: handwriting, spelling, composing, and print concepts. Then responses were open-coded using an iterative process. Responses to the vignettes revealed that teachers’ knowledge of early writing development generally aligns with research-based conceptualizations for handwriting and print concepts, but less so for spelling and composing. Teachers varied widely in the components they discussed, with clear patterns across the three writing samples. Observations of teachers’ practices revealed that teachers primarily enacted practices focused on children’s handwriting skills and engaged in scaffolding strategies designed to make writing easier for children more frequently than modeling or expansion strategies. Most instructional strategies were considered low quality as teachers were observed doing much of the cognitive or physical work of writing. Teachers’ knowledge and practices were related. Teachers demonstrating higher knowledge complexity (i.e., discussed more writing components in their responses) engaged children in more writing and offered higher quality supports reflecting a wider range of writing components.
... Children learn to recognize letters before becoming able to write them (Reutzel et al., 2019). A child first begins to scribble with no discernible pattern (Coates and Coates, 2016). Between the ages of 2 and 3 years, he/she learns to imitate shapes (vertical strokes, horizontal strokes, and circles). ...
... Taking children's work seriously, whatever the subject or type of activity, is extremely important if they are to feel that their efforts are respected and highly regarded. Communication between adults and children includes listening to what they are saying, respecting their intellectual integrity and reinforcing that scribbling is regarded as an exciting, serious, and stimulating activity (Coates & Coates, 2016). ...
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Drawing is a medium of expression and a part of children’s creative and imaginative process. Children can create, share ideas, visualize and realize their imagination through drawing. Drawing with crayons is familiar to children but this does not apply to the children of age between 5 – 12 years old who live in Karawaci district, Indonesia. These children did not have the opportunity to learn additional skills through informal education due to their families’ financial constraint. The purpose of this activity is to provide training in the right drawing methods and to train children to be creative in dealing with the limitations of the financial conditions. A qualitative method with a case study approach is used to achieve the objectives and determine the answers to the problems encountered in this research. Out of the five methods introduced, the blocking and mixing methods were the most preferred techniques by the children because it was easy to use and produced drawing with bright colours which represent their expression and imagination.
... Handwriting development begins through the early markings that children make when they begin interacting with crayons, pencils, and other graphic tools. One of the most common forms of early marking is scribbling or making marks for the sake of making marks with no discernable pattern or form (Coates & Coates, 2016;Gibson & Yonas, 1967). As children begin to draw, they coordinate the marks they make into simple forms and may combine these forms into more complex figures (Goodnow, 1977;Kellogg, 1959). ...
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Even with the increasing use of technology in the classroom, handwriting remains a developmental foundation of education. When children fail to learn to write efficiently, they encounter cascading difficulties in using writing to communicate and learn content. Traditionally, the development of handwriting has been studied via neuropsychological testing or the moment-to-moment kinematics of pen movements. By measuring children’s handwriting with neuropsychological testing, investigators have determined that children’s visual-motor integration abilities predict children’s handwriting. Further, by measuring children’s pen movements while writing, investigators have determined that children’s handwriting becomes more fluent as they become skilled writers. Both of these literatures have advanced our understanding of handwriting substantially, but fall short of providing a full account of handwriting development. Here, we offer a perception–action account of handwriting development by describing how eye and hand movements become integrated during early writing. We describe how head-mounted eye-tracking technology can be used to measure children’s eye movements as they write in real-time. We illustrate this approach with findings from research on letter, form, and word copying in school-entry age children. We conclude by discussing how a perception–action approach can be extended for use with atypical populations.
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In a series of tiny artistic experiments, I explore the relationship between drawing writing and performing in close collaboration with children and professional dancers. I examine the tight relationship between drawing and writing on the one hand, and the process of sensorial (non-linguistic) sense-making on the other hand. Professional dancers and children engage in the act of imaginal writing. The aim is to come to an embodied understanding of drawing and writing as gestural re-enactments of the line (Ingold 2016). In this paper, I first describe the scribbling of young children, as the exploration of the line in terms of rhythm, movements and affects. Then, the tight relationship between drawing and writing is discussed. It is argued that both drawing and writing use the line as its medium, since ‘the same sort of line which writes also draws’ (Gray in Ingold 2016: 132). This brings me to imaginal writing, i.e. a form of writing that is not concerned with the semantic content of words but instead takes the quality and dynamic of the line as its departure point. Imaginal writing is a form of draw-writing that taps straight into the lived experience. It is an embodied activity that takes movement as the main vehicle for the sense-making process. This process is illustrated by the draw-writings of both children (my own daughter as well as other children) and professional dancers.
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This chapter examines scribble, drawing and dance through the Steiner movement form known as Eurythmy. Invariably associated with children’s early mark making and emergent writing or drawing as a phase from which to “grow out of”, scribble is re-interpreted through association with the WriteDance approach, D.W. Winnicott’s therapeutic ‘squiggle’ technique, avant-garde artists such as Cy Twombly’s abstract expressionist work and Steiner’s view of the arts as fundamental routes to developing ‘feel’, soul and spirit.
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concrete examples of children’s meaning-making.
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With an extensive background in teaching and researching children’s uses of drawing, Gill Hope describes the ways in which multiple forms of drawing are used by elementary school children. She explains why it should be actively promoted as a means of supporting thinking and learning across a wide range of subject areas, and provides practical support for teachers.
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The author questions inherited wisdom about children's development in visual representation and explains different models of development in visual expression.