How to Teach a Child to Draw

Girl drawing
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Wary of inhibiting their creativity, we tend to avoid teaching children how to draw. But they are receiving input from all around them and many want to learn to draw. Why let them flounder when we can provide positive models?

Stages of Development: Should We Interfere?

How do we approach the teaching of drawing to children? It depends on what stage of development they are at, and of course, every child is different.

  • A First Visual Language: From picture books, toddlers learn that shapes have names and represent objects. They begin to label familiar shapes found in their scribbles, then begin to use simple shapes to construct simple objects, especially faces.
  • The Visual System Expands: As children get older, they add detail and complexity to their drawings. Faces attach to bodies, and they find ways to represent more objects. At around age 5, depending on the child, a sense of pattern emerges, with houses, trees, and families telling familiar stories, and the symbol-library does its job well.
  • Discovering Limitations: Problems begin at about age 10 when reality and appearances become important. The rocket taking off or the beautiful dress or the horse don't look right - the symbolic language no longer works. Some children become obsessed with drawing fine details at this stage. Some will do a great deal of drawing in an attempt to get it right and most will give up in disgust.

Drawings represent the child's experience of the world. We must be careful not to invalidate this by the way we respond.

Inappropriate responses may include:

  • Imposing our own narratives - our stories or ideas - on the drawing, for example, "Oh, that's a nice dog. Oh, it's a horse? Well, it looks like a dog...".
  • Criticism of the lack of realism or unrealistic expectations. Have you noticed how we always expect children to draw from memory even things which they may be quite unfamiliar with?
  • For older children, criticism of realism. We might label their awkward attempts at realistic detail as 'tightness' and lament the loss of childish naivete.

Of course, we fear that we might inhibit a child's natural creativity, but it is important to remember that if children are not taught to draw, their creativity will die a natural death.

Art skills - drawing, painting, sculpting what you see - can and should be taught to children. You have to know the rules before you can break them: no one would suggest that you can play great music without years of music lessons. Yet, somehow they don't apply the same logic to art.

How Do You Help a Child to Learn to Draw?

First, learn about drawing for yourself. The difference between drawing a square house with 4-square windows and a chimney and drawing the 'real' shape of a house is an immense leap of understanding. Learning to draw is far more about seeing than about making marks on paper.

This is essential: to teach your child to see this way, you must first learn about it yourself.

You must understand how an artist sees the world to foster this vision in your youngster.

Don't expect instant results. The process of learning to draw is a lengthy one and it's often measured in years, depending upon a child's fine motor skills and cognitive development. Pushing a child too quickly will only result in unhappiness for all concerned. Gentle nurturing will allow their natural talent to blossom.

Learn to listen. When looking at or making art with children, always be positive. When guiding their drawing, avoid correcting 'mistakes', but rather offer suggestions at the beginning of the session.

In lives constantly controlled by adults, art is one area of true freedom for children, so be careful to offer possibilities rather than impose rules. Be guided by their interest and ability. When a child is happy with their efforts, share their pleasure. If the child feels the drawing is unsuccessful, discuss why it does not achieve their aims, and find some positives to praise, and things to learn from.

Points of discussion (depending on age):

  • How do you feel about your picture?
  • What do you like about this color?
  • Tell me about these shapes.
  • I like these zig-zaggy/swirly lines.
  • Do you like using the large/small brush?
  • These colors are so bright/deep.
  • This pattern is interesting.
  • Your drawing reminds me of ... I saw in the gallery.
  • What excellent attention to detail.
  • You have observed the subject well.
  • That is a very creative approach.

Learn About Art With Your Children

Children learn to draw the same way they learn to speak (and later write) - by copying. The symbols we use for ideas, whether they are sounds, written or pictorial signs, are generally learned ones. The world around us - family, our environment, the media - all provide input.

Drawing with children helps them discover that shapes can carry meaning, and more importantly, that they can create meaningful shapes themselves.

Toddlers: Model Drawing

Drawing with babies and toddlers is great fun. Start with simple shapes and name them. They will recognize many from their picture books.

Draw simple faces. As you draw, explain what you are doing: a happy smile, a sad face, curly hair, this one has ear-rings. Draw trees, flowers, grass, a house, animals.

Encourage little ones to join in, doing their own or adding details. Name the colorsL as well as the primaries, look for pencils or pens in colors like ochre, magenta, turquoise, and vermillion.

Never apologize for your lack of talent - your little one thinks you are a genius.

Preschoolers: Expanding the Vocabulary

You can broaden your child's vocabulary of visual symbols just as you do with the written word, by 'reading' and 'writing' them.

As they begin to draw, ask your child what they are depicting. You can offer gentle prompts as they go, but do not be insistent - you are simply offering possibilities. A horse... how many legs does it have? Four? Who is riding the horse? Do they have a saddle?

If asked, you might offer a suggestion for a line that will help represent an unfamiliar shape. How do I draw a saddle? Perhaps a curved line, like this? How can we show movement? Try making fast, energetic marks. Slow, wavy marks for water... remember art is about feeling as well as seeing.

Just as parents are asked to model writing to school children, you can also model drawing. At this age, your own ability is not an issue.

When you spend some time drawing along with your child, making pictures about things in your life - what you do at work, a visit to the supermarket, a special trip, how you felt about something important - you are modelling both the actual mark-making of drawing and the value of drawing as a means of expression.

School Age: Ready to Build Skills

When a child begins to be interested in creating complex pictures, has good fine motor control (drawing accurate shapes), and expresses the desire to draw how things look, then they are ready to begin learning to draw realistically.

It is important to remember that realism is only one aspect of artistic expression. Endeavors in this area should be balanced by encouraging expressive mark-making, experimentation with color, and exposure to non-representational art.

Make use of online tutorials and drawing books to do practical drawing exercises, keeping them fun. Allow your child to focus on their interests - horses, cartoon characters, fairies - rather than strict traditional exercises.