Art in the Early Years: Part 3: Drawing

Children have an early and natural urge to draw, but practitioners need to offer them ample resources and encourage them to think about and discuss their efforts afterwards.

Suffolk Early Years and Childcare Service (Suffolk County Council) offers advice.

Drawing is one of the six areas of artistic experience that should be available to children within the Early Years Foundation Stage, the others being painting, collage, textiles, 3D and printmaking.

Drawing and mark-making are meaningful experiences for children and it is through such experiences that children can communicate their unique ideas about themselves and the world around them, express their feelings and develop their imagination and creativity (DCSF 2008).

A 'blank canvas' can become anything a child wants it to be. The final picture (graphical representation) tells only part of the story. What is important is the creative process and, as practitioners, it is important that we understand, acknowledge and support that process through:

  • - nurturing environments
  • - a range of stimulating experiences
  • - meaningful interactions with the child.

Without an emphasis on the process, the focus will remain on the end product, artistic styles and abilities.


'Scribbling is to drawing as babbling is to talk' (William Stein)

Drawing begins very early in a child's life, as part of their exploratory play. Through sensory exploration of visual and physical properties of materials, young babies can be seen making marks, for example, when playing with food smeared on a high-chair. As children develop, these accidental marks lead to experiential scribbling and purposeful drawing (Morgan 1988).

There are many ways for children to make marks. These will involve looking, selecting, touching and physical mark-making. They may be accidental, experimental or planned. Play features strongly in this, allowing children to explore imaginary and abstract worlds and developing their understanding through mark-making, drawing and storytelling.

Seen as one of the many languages of children, drawing is a kind of graphic speech (Vygotsky), enabling children to 'talk' about themselves and the world around them. This is reflected in the Reggio approach to early years education, where the process of drawing forms a fundamental part of all learning.

In this approach, drawing is seen as multimodal, with talking and moving viewed as important parts of the creative process. Termed as visual, linguistic and tactile (Wright 2010), these elements can be seen in the way that young children often verbalise the reasoning behind their images and symbols, using physical gestures and actions to further emphasise these. Through composing their artwork, they are making visible their thinking.

Take the example of Rosie. She shows her completed picture to an adult. The picture is smeared with blue pen. 'It's raining!' she states proudly. The adult shares Rosie's pride in her picture. However, this is only the end product, the last chapter in a story, and not the thinking behind its creation.

Let's consider the creative processes involved in producing it. Rosie begins her picture with a flower growing from the ground. Using coloured pens, she makes the stem grow bigger and bigger. She adds small green leaves and beautiful petals. As she draws, she talks about what she is doing, showing her understanding of how plants grow. She then talks about how rain makes them grow big like one in her garden, and begins to dot the paper with blue. This turns into long arches with whooshing gestures and finally, heavy scribbling, for, as Rosie knows, it can rain really hard.

The importance of such experiences is made clear in Mark Making Matters: 'These opportunities for making "thinking visible" are fundamental to children's learning and development and should be the entitlement of every child' (DCSF 2008).


Practitioners have a crucial role to play in supporting children's drawing experiences. They need to:

  • - plan meaningful activities and experiences that build on the children's knowledge, understanding and interests
  • - have a good grasp of child development in relation to early mark-making in order to plan suitable experiences. Art 4-11: Art in the early years of schooling (Morgan 1988) provides an excellent explanation of the development of children's imagery.
  • - provide children with open-ended opportunities to try out different resources in different environments
  • - introduce new media and different ways of using known media
  • - allow the children the time and space to immerse themselves in these experiences
  • - value children's individual creativity. As Mark Making Matters notes, 'In an emotionally secure environment, where their creativity is valued and respected, children will often become prolific mark-makers. This is particularly true when the purpose and the means of representation are within their control' (DCSF 2008).

Meaningful interactions

Effective support requires practitioners to 'tune in' to the individual and distinctive ways in which children use drawing to represent their thoughts, ideas and emotions. Enabling children to tell the whole story means observing what is taking place, listening, hearing and responding.

Practitioners need to be sensitive to children's gestures and words as well as the images being recorded. Children may talk about the process, the shapes or people that they have included, or tell themselves the stories that they are drawing.

Children need opportunities to articulate their creative thinking, and by engaging them in conversation, practitioners can help make their thinking visible. It is not just about asking questions such as 'what have you drawn here?'; it also involves a more reciprocal relationship where the child takes an equally active role. The aim should be to draw out children's thinking by using more open-ended questions.

Most adults leave children little time to respond once a question has been asked. But practitioners should allow children time to respond, thus enabling their thoughts to flow and be processed. Using questions effectively can have an immediate and long-term effect on the quality and variety of children's creative development.

Enabling Environments

To create an enabling environment in which children's drawing can flourish, settings should aim to provide:

  • - opportunities both indoors and outside, with the provision of free flow between both environments wherever possible. Many children, especially boys, often make greater use of drawing and mark-making opportunities outside where they can engage using large-scale whole-body movements.
  • - a range of resources and materials to facilitate mark-marking opportunities (see Art in the Early Years, Part 2, Nursery World 24 February, for a range of resources). Some settings also invest in a drawing and mark-making resource trolley which can be transported between different environments.
  • - a wide range and variety of materials and surfaces from which children can choose, as self-selection is important to young children's learning. These can conventional drawing tools of different widths (from thin charcoal sticks to fat coloured chalks) and natural materials like twigs and branches, and conventional materials, from paper and card to light boxes and sand from a beach.

Engaging experiences

Within the area of 'drawing', practitioners should provide opportunities for children to:

  • - draw whatever they want, when they want
  • - experiment with drawing lines using their fingers in a variety of materials, such as sand, mud, flour, shaving foam, clay and paint, and investigate both wet and dry materials
  • - explore big movements with the whole body while drawing, for example, by using pastels as an extension of their arm and recording the movements by drawing on large vertical or horizontal surfaces
  • - experiment with a variety of tools for drawing lines, such as pens, pencils, felt tip markers, wax crayons, oil pastels and charcoal, and found objects such as threads, sticks, water from a watering can or a simple computer programme
  • - draw on a variety of surfaces - various colours of paper, card, acetate, textured paper or card, tissue paper, plastic, white boards, blackboards, mirrored paper or found objects like stones and wood
  • - draw from their imagination
  • - use a variety of drawing materials to express their ideas, thoughts and feelings, enabling them to respond to what they see around them.


Here are some suggestions for introducing drawing into some familiar experiences and themes for young children.

Exploring my environment

Within both the 'natural' and 'built' environment, provide a wide range opportunities for children to:

  • - walk, sit and lie down in the natural environment to observe grasses, trees and flowers at all levels. Include other sensory experiences (touch, smell, and hearing) so that children can become immersed in a 'sense of a place' and their surroundings. Encourage them to express their ideas and feelings using mark-makers (chalks, pastels, paints) on a range of surfaces.
  • - look at and discuss the marks made using natural resources, such as long grass, short grass and stones. Encourage the children to repeat and explore marks and talk about how different materials (such as chalk, charcoal, pencils and graphite sticks) and surfaces (such as paper and card of different colours and weights or transparent film, natural surfaces like sand, mud or clay).
  • - talk about directions, using plans and maps. Draw plans of walks, gardens, parks and other natural environments (real and imagined).
  • - explore mark-making in response to observations from the built environment. Children may use short straight marks to represent picket fencing, criss-cross marks to represent wire fencing, and block marks to represent bricks or tiles.
  • - talk about different textures and make rubbings of textural features, such as bricks, paving and metal covers using graphite sticks or brick crayons.
  • - talk about features of interest (such as bricks and stone work, bridges, spires or reflections in windows) and encourage the children to trace out the shapes with their fingers and using big and small movements; then capture these on different surfaces using chalk or pastels.
  • - experiment with drawing maps and plans of journeys. Use a variety of materials to draw lines, such as ropes and water impressions into sand.
  • - talk about the built features, such as bricks and tiles, the shapes of roofs and towers, windows and doors, or drainpipes, and how to represent them with shapes, lines and textural marks.
  • - draw built features, such as towers, bridges, fountains and shops.

Exploring creatures

When children observe or interact with creatures and animals, you could provide opportunities for them to:

  • - explore and talk about the movements of creatures and translate these into ideas for mark-making.
  • - capture big movements (running, crawling, jumping, climbing) with chalks, charcoal, pastel on wall-mounted paper.
  • - experiment with making marks in response to textures, such as fur (long, short, smooth), feathers, scales and patterning (spots, stripes, camouflage). Select and use various tools and media.
  • - make marks in response to animal sounds with pastels, chalks and other mark-making media on large surfaces.
  • - talk about the appearance of creatures, including shape, colour, patterns and textures, and respond using pastels, pens and pencils, paint brushes, sponges.

Exploring 'All around me'

Light and shadow

Provide opportunities for children to:

  • - use torches, lines of lights, luminous bangles, and fibre optics to move and draw lines of light. Shine light through holes in dark paper and talk about what they see.
  • - Project shadow lines and shapes on to a wall or large paper using torches and projectors. Have the children respond to what they see by drawing the lines and shapes using graphic media or paint.
  • - Make marks on transparent and translucent materials and hold these up to a light source. Ask children to express their ideas about the effects created.

Lines, shapes and patterns

Provide opportunities for children to:

  • - talk about lines and shapes in the sky from direct observations and photographs (water vapour trails, clouds, rainbows, etc). Encourage the children to develop their ideas and express their feelings using graphic materials on a variety of surfaces.
  • - Make patterns - wavy lines, drippy marks, splashes - by dripping water from a watering can or bottle on to the playground outside.These images don't last long, so photograph the results.
  • - Draw lines and shapes on acetate and project them on to a wall.

Exploring 'Myself and others'

Provide opportunities for children to:

  • - look into mirrors, comment and discuss their different facial features (eyes, hair, expressions) and respond by using graphic materials on a range of surfaces.
  • - Talk about families, groups of people and crowds. Discuss images from newspapers, magazines, photos and fine art, and pick out different people or think about a specific person - ask questions and imagine thoughts and emotions. Let children respond in their own way using a variety of graphic materials.

Part 4: Painting, 21 April



Morgan, M Art 4-11: Art in the Early Years of Schooling (1988, last reprinted 1995), available from:

Art in the Early Years: A Resource to Support Creativity (Suffolk County Council) (2006), available from:

The Campaign for Drawing (, a charity raising the profile of drawing as a tool for thought, creativity, social and cultural engagement

Dolya, G, Vygotsky in Action in the Early Years: The Key to Learning Curriculum (2009) London: Routledge

Matthews, J (1999) The Art of Childhood and Adolescence: The Construction of Meaning. London: Falmer Matthews

Matthews, J Drawing and Painting: Children and visual representation (2nd edition 2003) London: Paul Chapman

Mark Making Matters: Young children making meaning in all areas of learning and development (2008) National Strategies Early Years, DCSF

Reggio Emilia Approach,

Wright, S Understanding Creativity in Early Childhood (2010) London: Sage

William Stein quote taken from Learning through drawing (1978) North Eastern Region of the Art Advisors Association

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