Do Not Underestimate The Child's Graffiti
A parent might place his daughter’s tadpole drawing on the fridge out of a love for his child rather than for the funky-looking image, but for many people, that tadpole art is actually quite exquisite. In fact, adult abstract artists were often inspired by children’s drawing. Observers have found similar patterns in modern abstract art and kids’ drawing; one example is the “X-ray” drawing, or a drawing in which the “inside” of a person is made visible (like a baby shown inside a woman’s stomach). For the museum-goers out there who tend to point to a piece of modern art and say, “My kid could have made that!” it’s worth remembering that often, that’s actually just what the artist had in mind.
Lucky accident or artistic prodigy, acknowledging that young kids aren’t as intent on producing a realistic rendering helps demonstrate what the drawing experience means to them. For many kids, drawing is exhilarating not because of the final product it leads to, but because they can live completely in the world of their drawing for a few minutes. Adults may find it hard to relate to this sort of full-body, fleeting experience. But the opportunities for self-expression that drawing provide have important, even therapeutic, value for kids.
Even simple scribbles are meaningful. Now it’s been shown that when children are scribbling, they’re representing through action, not through pictures. Liane Alves, a prekindergarten teacher, recalled a student who presented her with a drawing featuring a single straight line across the page. Alves assumed the child hadn’t given too much thought to the drawing until he proceeded to explain that the line was one of the mattresses from The Princess and the Pea, one of the fairy tales they read in class.
Maureen Ingram, who’s a preschool teacher at the same school, said her students often tell different stories about a given piece of art depending on the day, perhaps because they weren’t sure what they intended to draw when they started the picture. “We as adults will often say, ‘I’m going to draw a horse,’ and we set out... and get frustrated when we can’t do it,” Ingram said. “They seem to take a much more sane approach, where they just draw, and then they realize, ‘it is a horse.’”
Ultimately, what may be most revealing about kids’ art isn’t the art itself but what they say during the drawing process. They’re often telling stories that offer a much clearer window into their world than does the final product. Asking them what their drawing is “supposed to be” wouldn’t yield as many answers, either; some have even argued that kids might be naming their work because they’re used to the ritual of their teachers asking them to describe their drawing and then writing a short title on the piece of paper. Studies suggest that kids will create an elaborate narrative while drawing, but when telling adults about their work they’ll simply name the items or characters in the image.
And what about those odd or scary-looking drawings? Does that mean kids are telling themselves stories that are odd or scary?
It’s hard to say, but it’s rarely a good idea to over-interpret it. Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College, pointed to parents who worry when their kid draws a child the same size as the adults, wondering whether she’s suffering from, say, a feeling of impotence —a desire to feel as powerful as older people. But the likely reason is that the child hasn’t yet learned how to differentiate size in his or her representation; the easiest solution is to just make all the figures the same size.
What’s most important to remember is that “children’s art has its own logic,” Winner said. “Children are not being crazy.”