Children’s drawings: what can we infer from them?

February 21, 2010 at 11:00 am 6 comments

Children are developing constantly. We develop more in the first eighteen years of life than the following (hopefully) fifty or sixty.
Children’s drawings are a useful method to monitor the  development a child goes through. From about the age of 12-18 months, the average child will be capable of making marks on paper (Cox, 1993; Thomas & Silk, 1990). At first the child may not intend their scribbles to represent anything, but this may change with age. As the child ages, these marks become more representative and often more realistic. This post will explore the pattern of development for drawing, and also explain what can be inferred from a child’s drawing.

Luquet developed three set of stages that children follow when developing their drawing skills:

  1. Scribbling (2-4 years)
  2. Pre-Schematic (4-7 years)
  3. Schematic (7+ years)

These will now be explored in further detail.

Scribbling Stage:

Figure 1.

As can be seen in figure 1.,  there is no realism in the picture. Nothing visible there can be compared to something in the real world that the child may have wished to represent. The scribbles appear random and unplanned. However, towards the end of the stage a phenomenon described as “fortuitous realism” occurs, where a child may actually interpret their scribble as something other than simply lines. For example, they may see a car where they’ve drawn a mass of lines. Studies have actually attempted to identify the different kinds of scribbles that appear to be universal among children, but I have decided to omit that as there are loads of them. If you’d like to read further into them, here’s a brilliant link:

Pre-Schematic Stage:

Figure 2.

By now, the child is attempting, with varied success, to represent real things in the world (known as “synthetic incapacity” or “failed realism“). The focus tends to be on humans, plants/trees and houses/buildings. Salient features of the subject are depicted, but may not always be accurate (Figure 2). A very common error children make early in this stage is the merging of the head and body without evidence of a neck; the head and body are one entity. Details of many features are usually lacking, for example fingers, pupils and realistic lips.
Towards the end of this stage, the drawings become slightly more realistic, and some features that were previously missing may be added. At this stage, “intellectual realism” occurs; the child depicts real objects much more accurately from their knowledge of the world. The child also fails to draw from one single perspective. For example: if they draw a man holding a cup, the full hand and cup would be drawn, whereas in reality you would not perceive the whole cup, as part of the hand would mask it from view. Towards the end of this stage, clothes may also be shown.

Schematic Stage:

Figure 3.

By now many detailed features of the object are present (Figure 3). There is much more meaning to the picture, and the evidence of schema are present. This means that a child drawing the sea may incorporate fish, shells, sand and other relevant images to match their ‘idea’ of what a sea should involve. Clever replacements of images may be used, for example “V” shapes for seagulls. Words and symbols may also be used to add further meaning to the image. Pictures of humans will usually include much detail, such as clothes, pupils, freckles, lips etc.. A main indicator of a child reaching the schematic stage is the drawing being realistically drawn from a single viewpoint, without the transparency mentioned in the previous stage. There is often depth and a sense of spacial awareness – this is known as “visual realism”; the image is (mostly) realistic.

Later on, Viktor Lowenfeld added more stages to the three mentioned above. These are:

  • The gang stage
  • The Pseudo-Naturalistic Stage
  • The Period of Decision

I will not be explaining these in more detail, but here is a fantastic webpage with great information if you’re interested:

So what can we learn about a child from their drawings?

A method known as projective testing can be used to provide insights into children’s emotions. There is much debate about the reliability of the method, as many things are inferred which aren’t necessarily backed up with hardcore evidence. However, I’ll explain some of the most common suggestions of features of drawings, and the emotions linked with them*.

Signs of Impulsivity:

  • Poor integration of parts
  • Gross asymmetry of limbs
  • Transparencies
  • Big figure
  • No neck

Signs of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy:

  • Slanted figure
  • Tiny head
  • Hands cut off
  • Monstrous or grotesque figure
  • No arms, legs and/or feet

Signs of anxiety:

  • Shading of the face, body, limbs, hands or neck (or a combination)
  • Legs pressed together
  • No eyes
  • Clouds, rain or flying birds

Signs of shyness and timidity:

  • Tiny figure
  • Short arms
  • Arms clinging to body
  • No nose and/or mouth

Signs of anger:

  • Crossed eyes
  • Teeth
  • Long arms
  • Big hands
  • Nude figures, exposed genitals or sexual content

*These were defined by Koppitz (1968, 1984) and I used a Staffordshire University workbook for this information.

So to conclude, children’s drawings are much much more than what they may first appear. Not everyone is satisfied with the validity and reliability of the projective testing, but the predictability of the development in children is something to be admired. Here are some interesting websites if you’d like to read further:

Sam Eddy


Entry filed under: Developmental. Tags: , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

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  • 5. William: March 7 | My PBH Kids Journal  |  March 7, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    […] writing from school.  My only concern about the journal is the lack of arms in the pictures.  I have read that this can indicate insecurity.  However, this may be age appropriate at 4 years old. Otherwise, I think the drawings […]

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