From Scribbles to Symbols

How children learn to draw and write—and what their pictures and stories tell you.

By Ellen Booth Church

Children usually begin to draw and paint before they learn to write. Their pictures are like words for them and mark an essential step on the road to literacy. They use what might look like mere scribbles, lines, and blobs to represent what they see. You may have experienced your child “reading” her drawing to you, and then going to the next person and reading it the same way!

Process Matters
Putting Feelings into Art
Seeing with an Artist's Eye
How to Talk to Your Child About His Work
Encouraging Self-Expression


Process Matters
When it comes to children's art and writing, nothing rings truer than the expression “It's the process, not the product.” Children learn how to think and solve problems from the free exploration of art materials and language. Scribbling is a wonderfully heartfelt expression of thoughts, images, and emotions, and it should be celebrated as an art form and a writing tool. Allowing your child plenty of time to play with lines, shapes, and squiggles encourages a love of and interest in writing and art. Best of all, children who engage in plenty of scribbling are developing fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and the self-expression that will be so needed in their later schooling.

Over time, your child learns to make connections between what he creates and what the shapes and figures signify, which leads to the realization that symbols stand in for other things. This understanding of symbolic representation helps children grasp how letters and numerals signify something important. Both art and writing involve making symbols.

Giving your child time to express herself through art and writing, providing a variety of open-ended art materials to explore, and talking with her about artistic expression will help her develop necessary communication skills, as well as a deeper understanding of her inner and outer worlds.

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Putting Feelings into Art
While most children have a huge vocabulary to describe their experiences, they often don't have the words for their feelings. Art is the perfect outlet for your child's emotions. A lump of clay or a brush and paper allows him to express joy and happiness, and work through sadness, fear, or anger. Pounding the clay or making sweeping strokes of a paintbrush can offer a much-needed release on a hard day.

Sometimes color is the significant part of your child's emotional experiment with art. Children may choose a particular color to express an emotion. How the colors are put on the page is usually even more telling. Watch your child's brush or crayon strokes. You can quickly recognize the difference between a gentle, peaceful movement and an angry thrusting motion.

It's important not to jump to conclusions, though. Just because your child uses lots of black doesn't necessarily mean she is angry or depressed. She may just like black for its opaque quality, the way it covers everything else. After one preschooler had been using only black for weeks, her teacher gently asked about it: “I noticed you are using a lot of black in your pictures. What do you like about the color?” The child answered, “It's the color of my new kitten! She's shiny and makes me happy.”

Help your child explore his emotions more deeply by varying the type and color of the paints and tools you provide, as well as the paper and objects to paint on (boxes, rocks, or fabric, for example). Remember that emotions also have texture. Supply small pieces of differently textured materials for him to use. Mix a tiny bit of white glue into the paint so that your child can stick the bits right onto his paintings for a collage effect.

You can further expand your child's artistic and emotional growth by introducing “emotional” vocabulary words. Use a variety of words to describe how you feel. For example, instead of saying you are happy, say you are glad, joyful, or merry. Instead of saying you had a bad day, say you are frustrated or weary. Children pick up words easily in context and will very quickly start using them appropriately. Naturally, you can use these same words when talking with your child about her art.

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Seeing with an Artist's Eye
Art is perspective — seeing things a certain way. Children are very good at looking at the world in different and unusual ways. In fact, their art and writing is always a unique reflection, perfectly their own, which makes them natural artists! And that's something you can encourage by pointing out interesting ways of seeing things.

When children draw what they see with an artist's eye, words and descriptions usually flow naturally. Introducing your child to the work of great artists (try Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollack, and Joan Miro) is one of the best ways to get him more interested in artistic expression — and vision. He may be surprised to see that many valued works of art are similar to his own beginning drawings. As he comes to realize that artists don't always draw or paint recognizable things, he'll feel less pressure to draw something that looks perfect.

As you show your child a work of modern art, invite her to suggest a title for it — another way to connect art and language. Encourage her to use his imagination and emphasize that there is no right answer. For example, 5-year-old Omari titled Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie “Dancing Lines,” and his friend Marcy was surprised to learn that a Joan Miro painting was titled People and Dog in Sun. To her, it looked like “Kids Playing on the Swings.”

It's often easier for children to talk about what they see in another artist's painting than it is to talk about their own. When you invite your child to look at the work with an artist's eye, you open the door for him to understand what the artist is expressing. Of course, this is just what we want children to do with their own work! Talking about what another artist might be thinking, feeling, and trying to say sets the stage for her to talk about her own work.

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How to Talk to Your Child About His Work
It is not unusual for some children in the same age group to be scribbling while others are creating true representational drawings that begin to look like people, plants, and things. Children can also be critical of one another — and themselves — when it comes to drawing. When talking to your child about his artwork, be sensitive and open.

  • Try to avoid vague compliments (“That's pretty!”); judgments (“I really like what you painted!”); corrections (“Nice picture, but remember that dogs have four legs.”); and direct questions (“What did you draw?”).

  • Don't respond right away. By smiling and nodding first when your child shows you his work, you give him the chance to say what he wants to say about it.

  • Simply say, “Thank you!” Those two little words say so much: Thank you for making this picture, for showing me, for working so hard on it. There is no judgment, just a sincere gratitude for the artistic effort.

  • Describe what you see without judgment or compliment. “You used many colors and some of them have mixed together to make new ones!” or “I notice you made lines across the bottom of the page and squiggles on the top.” This opens the door for your child to tell you something more about the elements you are describing.

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Encouraging Self-Expression
There is a lot you can do to foster creative expression and to help your child make the connection between art and writing. It all starts with giving your child the time and space to experiment. Try to set aside a corner or table for your child's own art-writing center. Stock it with plenty of tools and materials for free, explorative art, such as washable paints, watercolors, crayons, glue sticks, child-safe scissors, paper (recycled newspapers, old magazines, wrapping paper, cardboard), fabric scraps, and ribbon. And try these easy, inspiring activities:


Introduce and experiment with the elements of art. Introducing “art words” can expand your child's vocabulary (which helps with writing) and teach him about the basic elements of art: color (names of shades, light and dark); shape (circle, square, triangle); texture (bumpy, smooth, fuzzy, lumpy); line (long, short, straight, curvy, thick, thin, spiral, slanted); and space (front, back, high low, near, far).


Use the Internet to explore great art. You don't need to live near a museum; you can access images online by going to and typing in an artist's name. You'll quickly get some mini-snapshots of her work.


Invite your child to create an abstract masterpiece. After looking at a Jackson Pollack painting, experiment outside with dripping paints on large sheets of paper. Or encourage her to paste colorful cutout lines and shapes to create Mondrian-style art. Let her dictate the title for you to write.

Provide a mirror. Keep an unbreakable mirror near your child's art area so that he can see himself and be aware of how he's feeling. The results can be quite powerful.


Put a spin on paint-blot art. Have your child pick up thin tempera paint with an eyedropper and drip it onto paper. Repeat with another color. Place plastic wrap over her paper and invite her to press it gently. The paints will blend and swirl into interesting images that will keep changing depending on how she presses or moves her fingers over the plastic wrap. Remove the plastic wrap and set the painting aside to dry.


Make a book of dreams and wishes. Art and writing intersect in this handmade project. What does your child dream about? What does he wish for? Whenever your child remembers a dream, he can add drawings and words to tell the story of his dream or wish. Try using lots of differently textured papers. Punch holes on the sides of the pages and store them in a binder. Glue a photo of your child on the cover.


Make invisible ink. Kids will love this science-inspired trick. Your child can draw or write with lemon juice or white vinegar on white paper. The “message” is revealed when it is held up to the heat of a lamp or the sun.


Display and share your child's art. As a special way to honor your child's work, frame it and hang it in the living room. Use an old or new picture frame (poster-style Plexiglas frames work well). Once a month (or week!) ask your child to choose a piece she wants to celebrate. You can also string a clothesline across a wall and hang her work with clothespins. Use a scanner to create cards for friends and relatives.


Create a portfolio. In addition to drawings, save your child's accompanying words and dictation. Periodically, review the work together so he can see how he has grown artistically and linguistically. Involve your child in the selection of the work to save.


When young children experiment with art, in any form, their creative expression, language, and communication skills blossom. Art is an outlet for emotions and a fertile ground for new ideas to take form and flight. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “We use a mirror to see our face, and the arts to see our soul.”

Ellen Booth Church is an early childhood consultant. Some of the activities have been excerpted from her new book, 25 Literacy-Building Art Activities (Scholastic).

  • Subjects:
    Child Development and Behavior