A baby is bathed in language — communicated through sights, sounds, movement, facial expressions, touch, and words. This communication is something that most families and certainly educators shape and pursue, instinctively and purposefully.
Last year, one of our Saturday Morning Coffees featured a discussion about literacy development, specifically mark-making and writing. As I prepared for my portion of the session, I —yet again— searched for developmental stages of drawing to include in our hand-out. I say “yet again” because I have looked for a good, user-friendly, resource and there are certainly plenty, but I was struck again by how often the word “scribble” is used for that early, sensory driven stage of mark-making. That is an accurate description, but in the world of teaching young children we know that somewhere along the way this label becomes something negative. Older siblings enrolled in elementary schools will call this “scribble scrabble” and it is enough to stop young explorers in their tracks. They often become intimidated and won’t draw. The phrase “scribble scrabble” is like a virus once introduced. It spreads through the class like a virus.
I promised myself and others that I would make my own developmental chart, but then days and weeks of typical busyness filled up my time and I didn’t get to it. No matter because what I did get to this past summer is a magical book by the late Ursula Kolbe, It’s Not a Bird Yet: The drama of drawing. Lightbulb moment! First of all, she places and gracefully describes that action of swooping and swirling lines and places it in context of something larger. Just as it should be.
As I reflected about how she describes this, through a greater connection to how we communicate with each other, that this “early” stage is like a baby’s first bubbling sounds to communicate needs. Just as a line gains intensity, a baby’s sounds will as well as the crying need becomes more compelling or the laughter gains in joyous momentum. We seem to have a very effective road map for responding to and building upon these early efforts at communicating. We do not when it comes to drawing which is tied so closely to the early stages pf mark-making and pre-writing.
This is because at some point, drawing becomes a socially-constructed connection with artistic ability and expression. At about the ages of 7 or 8, children will begin to sort themselves into those “good at art” and those “not good at art.” An underlying theme is the inability to draw and drawing is the most accessible form of expression — it doesn’t make a mess and materials for drawing can be carried around in your pocket! This falling or moving away from this form of communication may even limit some brain development and certainly may limit some children from learning if they are visual learner/processors.
And that is what it is! A form of communication. So rather than looking for developmental stages of drawing, look no further than drawing as a form of human communication, symbols as words, collected symbols as stories, and stories collected as lessons, history, dreams, and inspirations.
That we have landed in a place of drawing=art means that we are not supporting drawing the way we have so comfortably mapped out other forms of communication, specifically verbal and non-verbal communication (language). One of the thing that Ursula Kolbe shares is this idea of collaborative drawing between children, but I would propose that this collaboration is a must between adult and child as well. We start with the barest of sound (line and shape) and move to joining for words and sentences (symbolic and representational drawing).
It is so simple!
Except for the part that it isn’t because there are two problems at play. Many of us have to change our perception of our own skills and abilities surrounding drawing. We also have to get past this practice of not drawing with/for children. I often hear that an adult “draws better” so should not draw in front of a child. I feel this is a one-note argument that assumes a child doesn’t have the capacity for in-depth exploration of his or her connection to other humans in the community. An adult can use spoken language better, but does that stop the conversation? Of course not!
Children and adults are connected, communication is collaboratively constructed. Drawing and mark-making is a form of communication and therefore should be modeled! Line, shape, color are all wonderful adjectives and nouns in a story which expresses story, feelings, and imagination.
We have always taught drawing at our school, but it was with this reflection that I realized that the “we” was me, our other teacher Andrea, and the other children as they gathered together. It also included a handful of parents who naturally felt confident in modeling drawing and writing for their children. It was with this realization that I am hoping to change our practice to make the collaborative and modeled drawing more pervasive. All of us should feel that joyous and risky feeling of pen to paper. We are all storytellers and all of the tools, words and symbol helps us tell these stories.
Mona Brookes, Drawing with Children
Ursula Kolbe, It’s Not A Bird: The drama of drawing
Materials for drawing with can be found <here>