The stages of drawing are a set of developmental milestones that all children will move through naturally if given time to experiment and materials to play around with. There is no need to teach children how to draw – they will figure it out on their own! Parents need to allow their children the freedom to focus on the creative process of learning to draw and not on the product. Don’t fret if you have no idea how your child sees an elephant in the mess of green scribbles. They are just moving through the stages of learning how to draw!
The best thing you can do for your child is to encourage their creativity by providing them with materials to create, then stepping back and letting them get down to it. Drawing is a great way to practice fine motor skills, develop hand-eye coordination and creativity, and develop pre-writing skills that will be crucial for school later on. A piece of paper and some crayons will do just fine, but an easel can also be a great tool for toddlers and kids as they sometimes find it easier to stand than sit.
Stage One: Random Scribbles
The first stage of drawing is not much to look at! Shortly after their first birthday, around fifteen months of age, most babies will have the ability to grasp a crayon with their entire hand in what is known as a ‘palmar grasp’. When given a piece of paper and a crayon, these youngest toddlers will enjoy experimenting with random marks. These uncontrolled movements will consist of a variety of scribbles, as well as vertical and horizontal lines, and there is no greater meaning attached to them.
At this early stage, drawing has little to do with creating a representation of something from their world; instead, it is just about learning about cause and effect. These uncontrolled scribbles teach children about different materials (crayons, chalk, paint, paper, etc.) and that they possess the ability to make things happen. Just picking up a crayon and making a mark on a piece of paper is a big deal for babies.
Stage Two: Controlled Scribbling
The next stage of drawing, seen in young toddlers approximately two years old, is known as controlled scribbling and is identified by spontaneous circular scribbles and dots. Drawings may also include horizontal and vertical lines, loops, and spirals. The shapes toddlers begin to form at this stage are important for developing writing and drawing skills later on.
By age two, most children can hold a pencil or crayon further down the shaft towards the point using their thumb and two fingers. This is called a tripod grasp and is an important step in developing writing skills. You may also notice that children will begin to have a preferred hand for their drawing activities at this stage.
In this second stage, toddlers discover the connection between the marks on their paper and the movements they are making with their hands. They will begin to move their hands with purpose, although there is still no clear intent behind the movements – for example, if you ask a two-year-old what they are drawing a picture of, you’re not likely to get much of an answer. At this stage, they are still just exploring.
Stage 3: Basic Shapes
In their third year, you will see children making basic shapes in their drawings as their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills continue to improve. Circles, squares, crosses, dots, and shapes that begin to resemble certain letters of the alphabet (such as T, V, and H) will start to appear in their drawings, either on their own or in various combinations. Children between three and four years old will also make their first attempts at drawing people. These people will be very rudimentary and often just consist of a head (circle) with two legs (lines) directly attached.
Three-year-olds will continue working on refining their tripod grasp with pencils and crayons. They will hold their writing implement consistently near the tip, between their first two fingers and thumb, and their fine motor control will have improved. You can help your child with their tripod grip by providing chunky triangular crayons and pencils.
By this stage, children should be able to tell you what their picture represents. They might not start drawing with a clear plan for what they will create, but after it is completed or while in the process, they can tell you what it is supposed to represent. The use of color is often unrealistic, and children at this stage tend to prefer to use only one color. Be warned, though, that even after your child tells you that their page of purple scribbles is supposed to be a picture of you two at the park together, you might struggle to see what they are describing!
Stage Four: Patterns and People
This is the stage where a child’s drawings usually begin to resemble whatever they are trying to represent. Patterns will begin to emerge, and children will start to draw with intention from the beginning. Shapes typically seen in this stage of drawing include squares, circles, rectangles, attempts at triangles, crosses, and attempts to form letters. The letters will likely not carry much meaning, aside from a child trying to emulate what they see adults do.
Children will continue to add detail to the people they began to form in the last stage of drawing. They are not necessarily drawing what they see, but what they know and what is important to them, and so after the basic head and legs, the next details added are usually eyes, mouth, and arms. Some children may even add extra details such as fingers to the ends of their hands. In this drawing stage, four-year-olds will begin to combine shapes to form basic images. The first of these shapes is typically a person, as described earlier (circle and lines), but other basic images seen at this stage include a house, sun, or vehicle.
By this stage, four-year-olds should have a good grip on their pencil or crayon and strongly prefer one hand. They will begin to decide what they will draw before they start, giving a sense of meaning to their work. Shapes and lines are combined deliberately, and their pictures begin to look like what children describe them to be.
Stage 5: Drawing Pictures
By the fifth stage of drawing, children’s drawings become much more sophisticated and creative. Their drawings include basic shapes, such as circles, squares, triangles, and diamonds, combined in various ways to represent a number of familiar objects. Children will draw animals, houses, vehicles, and objects from nature, including trees and flowers.
Many of these objects will include greater detail than before – for example, a house might now have a door, windows, a roof, and a chimney. When drawing a person, closer details will also emerge, such as hair, a body, hands, feet, and clothing. Children may also add defining characteristics when drawing a specific person, for example, long brown hair on a drawing of their sister.
Children will now decide what they want to draw before beginning, marking an important difference from their work before. They will draw what they know, drawing on their background and life experiences. Neatness and coloring inside the lines will be much improved from previous stages of drawing, but the use of color may still be unrealistic (blue suns, orange grass).
Children will frequently center themselves in their artwork since they are still viewing the world from an egocentric (me-first) point of view due to their young age. However, drawings may still lack an ‘anchor’ and consist of people or objects floating around in the air, as children this age are still developing their sense of spatial perception.
Stage Six: Representing Experiences
Children typically reach this drawing stage by age six or seven, when their skills are well established, and adults can identify images. By this stage, they will form various shapes and letters in their drawings and may have also established their own style. Their drawings of people will become more detailed while retaining the same basic shape for all different people.
For example, a child might draw their family with the same body outline but in different sizes to represent children, babies, and adults. They will change details such as hair and clothing to show that each person is an individual. At this stage of drawing, children will draw a wide variety of animals and objects from their life, typically aligning with their own interests.
While some of the differences between stages five and six are small, they represent a higher level of cognitive activity in children. For example, in stage five, objects are often drawn floating in the air, but in stage six, children will typically draw people, animals, or objects standing on the ground or grass.
They will also show size perception, such as drawing a tree larger than a house or a flower smaller than a dog. This shows that children have developed a greater understanding of depth and distance. Children will still emphasize in their drawings the things that are important to them and leave out objects that do not matter to them. In this stage of drawing, their use of color also becomes more realistic.