»Why do children draw?« is one of the more intriguing questions that a parent might ask. Anyone who has witnessed children sketching something on a piece of paper knows how fascinating it is and, of course, how adults promptly run to make all sorts of interpretations of the prodigious child.
Nevertheless, for children drawing is part of their kinesthetic development. They draw to get better control of their body – holding or manipulating objects is part of the process of growing up. And, surely drawing, as playful as it is, is one of their favorite activities.
For pedagogues, children’s drawings have different meanings and characteristics according to their age. Since I myself am not a pedagogue – and do not quite agree with these typologies – I will avoid going into much detail on those matters in this post. When I say that I don’t agree I’m referring to the fact that, in my own belief, children should grow up in freedom, rather than being objectified as a product of adults curiosity. Besides, I also feel that intellectualizing the work of children will affect their own identity, as they will internalize the image that is being projected onto them by their parents, relatives or educators.
Briefly, and for the most curious ones, it is believed that in the early stages of their lives children make ›scribbling‹, which means rolling the crayons all over the page, to simply use their hands and arms, play with color, feel the paper. As they grow older, they start to refer to the authentic world and represent it in more or less realistic ways, accordingly to their development stage. In the beginning the drawings are more broad and symbolic, lacking detail. The child may name their own drawings and change the idea over time – for instance, one day the drawing is ›dad‹, the other day is ›cloud‹. As they grow older, the drawings start to reveal detail, spatial thinking, proportion, etc.
Something very interesting about children’s drawings is the fact that they are not able to draw something that they don’t know. For instance, if they do not know what a train is, they won’t be able to draw it. Perhaps, that is not very different from the adult’s world, as people cannot represent an element that they have no knowledge of. But, certainly, adults have different abstraction skills that allow them to imagine figures that they’ve never seen, but have been described to them or whose idea was formed through their lifetime – say, a ghost.
Finally, the most interesting aspect of children’s drawings – and the reason why I am writing this post – is that drawing for a child represents a unique moment in their lives, in which both writing and drawing somehow emerge as communication tools. Whilst adults have different skills on hand to communicate – like gesture, speech, writing or drawing – for a child the amount of skills is rather small.
As we know, sound represents one of our first connections with the outside world, because while in the womb the baby experiences sounds which designate things. Once the baby is born, he or she arrives to see these designated things. The object is what people refer to as the ›object ‹, in speech. Through speech, he or she gets to know these two universes assembled together. Only later on in life will the child learn how to write the word itself. But, in-between these two moments, something happens: the child learns/starts to draw. Thus, drawing precedes writing as a communication skill, and in some cases may even substitute it.
As the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1962) defined, in the beginning of life thought and language are separated functions; only by the age of three will they merge together. Then, speech and thought become interconnected systems – thought is speech, speech is representation. 
Besides, learning how to draw also informs the way in which the child will write, because through drawing he or she learns how to visually represent forms on paper. What is more, drawing is credited has having a positive impact on memory and creativity and may change the functions of the brain. The so-called neuroplasticity occurs mostly, although not only, during the childhood. This means that depending on genetic factors, environment, and stimuli given to a child, the functions of his/her brain may change. As Bruce Wexler explains, »The dynamic systems view helps explain the striking fact that when one hemisphere of the brain must be removed in very young infants, their subsequent cognitive development is largely normal and all cognitive operations are performed with the remaining hemisphere.«  , ‘Shaping the Environments that Shape Our Brains: A Long Term Perspective’, in Cognitive Architecture Designing Respond Environment, pp. 146. New York: Routledge)
Furthermore, several studies  made with MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) show that, similarly to music, developing visual skills such as drawing may impact the composition of the brain, helping the development of fine motor control and procedural memory. Therefore, through drawing children may influence the function and composition of their brains and become different adults!
The images used in this post were made by Leon, a 2 year-old boy, son of the artists Simone Rueß und Matthias Reinhold. Like I wrote before, I would rather avoid theorizing about his sketches, as I don’t want to intellectualize his work… Besides, Leon, as the son of artists, is far more developed than some children of his age. The drawings were made at Akademie Schloss Solitude, where his parents lived as artists-in-residence. Hence, Leon benefited from a far more open, creative and diverse environment than many children of his age.
- Vygotsky, L. S. 1962. Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
- Wexler, Bruce (2014
- Chamberlain et al, The Perceptual Foundations of Drawing Ability, 2014