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The Developmental Magic of Children’s Drawing

New research shows that picture book reading promotes drawing.

Thalia R. Goldstein
Source: Thalia R. Goldstein

Co-authored with Dr. Jeremy Sawyer, postdoctoral fellow at Temple University

Children love to draw. Across countries and societies, even if the only materials available are a stick and dirt, children create pictures, images, and scenes, animating them with stories and intentions. [1] Children beginning at age 1, and throughout childhood, spend hours engrossed in coloring, doodling, and drawing all varieties of realistic and fantastic images. Children’s drawings are often visually striking, and have long fascinated psychologists, who have seen in them clues to personality, emotions, and mental development. [2] Drawings are a window into children’s remarkable creativity and blossoming artistic sensibilities. Their logical reasoning and symbolic representation also grow as children grapple with how to render the world and the people around them in two-dimensions. Drawing can enhance children’s spatial awareness, promote their STEM learning [3] and even help children regulate emotions during times of stress! [4] Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote that drawing is part of symbolic communication system that includes speaking, reading, and writing as it unfolds through development. [5] In a very real sense, children’s scribbles, doodles, and sketches serve as a developmental bridge between spoken and written forms of language.

But how can parents and teachers help foster children’s drawings? Should they? And what would such help look like? While specialized art classes certainly teach specific drawing techniques, [6] what about everyday activities in early childhood settings like block play, dramatic play, and storybook reading? Can these have a positive impact on children’s drawing? To find out, we ran an 8-week, 23-session intervention with 91 preschoolers in a Head Start summer program. Children were randomly assigned to one of three interventions: storybook reading, block building, or dramatic pretend play games. Children drew during each session, and we measured the effects of these activities on important aspects of children’s drawing in terms of artistic skill or cognitive capacities. Judges rated children’s pictures on five dimensions: creativity, talent, spatial complexity, use of color, and human content. Included in this post are some exemplary drawings from children in the study, published in the journal Empirical Studies in the Arts.

Our results showed that children’s overall drawing performance (a composite of all five drawing dimensions) improved over the 8-week intervention. While initially skilled drawers improved more than children who were initially less skilled, all children made gains. Of the three activities, storybook reading was the most beneficial for children’s overall drawing growth. The work of children in the storybook reading group were rated highest in creativity, talent, and spatial complexity, while children’s drawings from the block building group – which used a variety of colorful blocks to build various structures – were rated best in use of color. While dramatic play games did not help children’s drawing as much as the other activities, children in this intervention were rated equal to the others in human content – perhaps reflecting the emphasis on human characters and role play involved in this activity.

What made storybook reading the most beneficial activity for children’s drawing? When we analyzed videos of the storybook reading condition, we found that the instructors running the group asked children a lot of questions about the book’s illustrations. While reading the story, they stopped briefly to raise questions about the colors, spatial layout, and plot elements depicted in each picture. Children were then given a chance to engage in short answers and discussions about these elements. We think that because illustrations are so important in children’s literature, and adults guided children’s attention to the details of those illustrations, children were able to further develop their sense of what skilled drawings look like. Then, after closely considering the style and meaning of these high-quality illustrations, children were able to advance the creativity, complexity, and realism of their own drawings. In other words, they shifted from observing to creating!

Thalia R. Goldstein
Source: Thalia R. Goldstein

Because drawing connects with children’s cognitive, emotional, and symbolic development, as well as spatial and STEM learning, it is useful to know what kind of activities – outside of formal art classes – can foster its development. Our study suggests that parents and teachers might consider paring storybook reading with drawing activities. Emphasizing the colors, shapes, story elements, overall artistry of the illustrations in children’s books may give children inspiration and ideas for enriching their own drawings. While most psychological research has focused on what children’s drawings tell us about the child, we think that further exploring what activities help to grow our children’s drawing skills is time well spent.

*As a note, white boxes are not original, but are inserted for anonymity on drawings.


[1] Gardner, 1982; Winner & Gardner, 1981

[2] Koppitz, 1966; Piaget, 1963

[3] Uttal, Miller, & Newcombe, 2013

[4] Drake, Hostedt, & James, 2016

[5] Vygotsky, 1978

[6] For an excellent book on what drawing classes teach children, see Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education

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