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Developmentally Appropriate Stages in Art for Preschoolers
By Carolyn Tomlin

Samantha draws a human body complete with arms, legs, fingers and toes. Miguel’s figure of a person, however, is only a head with arms extended from the face. Both children are four-years-old. Samantha’s drawing is much more advanced than Miguel’s drawing. Why?

From the moment a child picks up his first writing instrument, he begins the first in an extensive series of developmental stages that will continue into adulthood. All children go through these stages, yet the pace differs with each individual child.


Developmental Stages of Art

Types of Scribbling

Scribbling is a manipulative skill and involves the ability to use one’s hands and fingers with dexterity. Developing this skill is vital to mastering hand-to-eye coordination, which is a prerequisite for developing the visual perception necessary to read from left to right.


Random Scribbling (ages 2-3)

Random scribbles are universally a child’s first mark. Regardless of culture and class, all children go through this preliminary stage of drawing. Randomly exploring and experimenting with different writing tools, this stage of scribbling pleases children as they discover its possibilities. The duration of this stage is dictated by the encouragement of teachers and parents, the child’s general health, muscle development, coordination, intelligence, and the quantity and frequency of opportunities to randomly scribble.


Controlled Scribbling (ages 2-4)

The second stage of development is signified by the introduction of geometric shapes such as circles, ovals, squares, triangles and crosses into the child’s art. As children gain muscle control, they begin to make attempts to organize their environment. Wavy lines and rippling lines may be interspersed with a variety of circular patterns.


Named Scribbling (ages 3-5)

When the child begins to identify the objects he draws by a name, he has moved into the third stage of development. Even though these drawn objects may be unrecognizable to adults, it is the act of naming that is significant. For children, the objects they have drawn are easily identifiable.

Subsequently, suns (a circle), radials (a circle with rays), and mandalas (circle with a cross inside) and other shapes from their environment begin to appear in the child’s art as they prepare for the next stage. Supplying a wide variety of experiences aids this developmental process. However, it is important to note that if five-year-olds are still scribbling, they are not necessarily slow learners or affected by a learning disability.


Symbolic Stage or Pictorial Stage (ages 5-7)

When a child begins to depict abstract concepts, he has moved into the Symbolic or Pictorial Stage. Realizing that thoughts can be represented by symbols, they may draw what they feel, instead of how things really are. They may enlarge, distort, and change objects according to how important the object may be to them. For example, a kindergartener is asked to draw a dog. The dog may be drawn larger than the child because the dog is so important in his life and the dog may be painted blue because blue is the child’s favorite color.

Instead of simple circular faces and stick bodies, children begin to draw people with articulated arms, legs and facial features. Baselines appear in drawings. For example, a ground is at the bottom of the picture, a sky above. If an object appears behind something and can’t be seen, it may be drawn nearby. A child’s bed, which could not be seen from the outside, may be drawn near the house. Color is used as a form of expression instead of as a realistic representation.

Teachers of young children must realize that each individual progresses in art at a different rate just like every other developmental stage. Don’t dismiss a child’s scribbles – it’s a vital part of learning.


Carolyn R. Tomlin has been a kindergarten teacher and taught Early Childhood Education at Union University in Jackson, TN. She is the author of What I Wish It Hadn't Taken Me So Long to Learn available at www.1stbooks.com or toll free 1-888-280-7715.