November 2015

The Artistic Development of Children

by Colin Brooks

Scribbles (0 - 4)

It begins with something simple. A young child makes a mark, or smears paint, or mashes clay. Before fine motor control and spoken thoughts the artistic development of children is an outstretched arm into what’s around them. It is about learning how materials feel, what they do when they get poked, when they’re prodded, or how they taste when they end up in a mouth. At first a child’s scribbles are explorations into the world around them. They are created primarily for the kinesthetic rewards “inherent in the manipulation of lines, colors, and texture” (Hurwitz & Day, 2007, p. 47). Creating marks on a page is exciting, and the process of changing how a material appears is more than enough.

As children develop further the chaotic creation of marks and colors and textures gives way to more control (Hurwitz & Day, 2007, p. 48). Different kinds of lines and colors are directed. Physical skills of manipulation become stronger. Eventually marks begin to take on distinct qualities: they become thick, thin, twirling, squiggly, and sharp. They can be organized on the page: grouped, arranged and manipulated further (Burton, 2013, p.32). At some point they begin to evoke feelings based on how they appear: this mark is angry, this one is sad. The lines become named as such, given the descriptive names they have rightly earned (Sousanis, 2014, p.1). Some lines are fast while others are slow. Lines are distinct from each other, but they can overlap, and build new shapes.

Eventually a child might make a line, but instead of stopping its path it continues back to where it began. A blob. This becomes the first step in a new kind of exploration of shapes (Burton 2013, p.33). Inside and outside become meaningful concepts. Shapes become enclosures, able to hold or exclude more shapes. Fundamentally the child has “made a place where one wasn’t before” (Sousanis, 2014, p.1), a further act of creation beyond their initial marks. Not yet representation, but also more than just manipulative exploration. As Sousanis says (2014, p.1) “we are all enclosures” a realization that brings with it a new stage in artistic development.

Representations (4 - 6)

Now shapes are more than shapes: the are representations. A six-year-old might make circles and call it family. Blobs will start growing eyes, and hair, and legs. Blobs might also be houses, or cars, or food. Marks and patterns begin to become the things they increasingly resemble, and the child begins to understand a link from page to reality.

Early symbols draw a line between lived experience and visual creation. People can be represented as a face. A symbol to be used and reused. Arms and legs might stick out from a blob to form a body. Regardless of the visual language used to construct the person it is fundamentally a person in the child’s conception. Work on the page can be who or what the child wants it to be.

Overtime a child will go from naming works after they are finished, to naming works while they are in progress, to naming works before they are even begun (Burton, 2013, p.34). This shift follows a change from reactionary identification of visual objects, to laying out an artistic and conceptual plan. People may go from a circle with eyes and a mouth, to one with nose and hair, to a one with arms and legs sticking out at the sides, to one with a full body beneath it and major appendages in all (or at least most) of the proper places.

A child learns to link material exploration to representations of their lived experience. Never leaving the scribbling stage entirely (Hurwitz & Day, 2007, p.50), material exploration continues unabated, but is now complemented by a greater purpose. Imagery, despite never looking exactly like what it is meant to be, can represent anything the child wants (Hurwitz & Day, 2007, p.51). This is an enormously important conceptual shift.

Awareness (6 - 11)

With an arsenal of artistic schemas at their disposal, children beginning to work through the numbered grades have both more complex tools and more complex experiences to represent. New relationships outside of family life become more apparent (Burton, 2013, p.39), symbols expand, divide, and change to suit increasingly specialized concepts (p.36), and composition and organization of objects becomes a new field of experimentation (p.39). A person might become a relative, and that relative might begin to be depicted doing different things. Differentiation increases. As Sousanis (2014) says, “children’s pictures have become expressive places populated with people and events of particular significance or excitement to them” (p.4). The child’s art becomes more specific.

Baselines in images start to shift. Sky and air and ground become distinct ideas of place on the page, and eventually they too give way to new perspectives (Burton, 2013, p.39). This change is matched in conceptual themes, as children move from what they do, to what they do with others, to what others do without them (Burton, 2013, p.41). New curiosity and understanding of the world is reflected in the child’s works. The child begins to tell stories, to explain events. Objects begin to overlap, and be shown from multiple sides (Sousanis, 2014, p.5).

Over time truth and fact become increasingly meaningful. Accuracy of depiction matters, and through that need direct observation may become more attractive (Burton, 2013, p.44). Seeing and identifying what is true. Copying perspective, copying works. The child becomes more self-conscious. They become more socially aware. Details increase, abilities grow, and as Sousanis (2014) says, “they’re on their way to adding their own chapters to the rich heritage of those who came before” (p.6).


Burton, J. (2013). A guide for teaching and learning in the visual arts. Unpublished teacher’s guide.

Hurwitz, A., & Day, M. (2007). Children and their art: Methods for the elementary school. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson Higher Education.

Sousanis, N. (2008). Expansive foundations: An overview of artistic development in children. Unpublished manuscript.