Summary of content
The role of drawing in children's learning is frequently misunderstood. Even within early years settings, where the opportunity to draw is often freely available, there is usually an adult focus upon 'mark making leading to writing' rather than communication and creativity. Drawing, however, is one of the many languages, which children use to 'talk' about their world in informal settings, both to themselves and to others (Kress, 1997, Pahl, 1999, Lindqvist, 2001). Through drawing children can re-present action, emotion, ideas or experiences and tell complex stories (Dyson, 1993, Gallas, 1994, Malchiodi, 1998, Matthews, 1994, 1999).
This paper draws on data collected as part of a three year, longitudinal research project about young children drawing within the home, pre-school and school context. Examples are highlighted of children 'taking in the world' and their relationship to significant events, places, objects and people, analysing them for significance and representing them out of their interest, through drawing.
Their drawings reflect versions of meaning making from the socio-cultural context in which they construct their narratives: from TV, videos and signs; from book, magazine and computer based imagery. Yet each child demonstrates a unique drawing style and an exploration through line of intensely personal responses to experiences. 'In doing so they participate in the making of their culture' (Kress, 1997) and show themselves to be able and powerful storytellers.
The role of drawing in children's development
Until relatively recently the study of children's drawings has reflected a 'top down' approach which takes the pursuit of realistic representation as its goal and a stage theory which has been generalised from the work of Luquet (1927), Piaget (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958), and Kellogg (1970) as its model of development (Matthews, 1992:26, 1999:84). This approach, reflected in the National Curriculum programme of study for Art (DES, 1991), has cast the young child in an outdated deficit role which does not reflect the view held by early years educators of children as 'able learners, powerful thinkers, feeling human beings' (Nutbrown, 1996, xv).
Also damaging to some extent, for the understanding of the role of drawing in young children's learning, has been the exchange of the word 'drawing' for 'mark making' in educare settings (Athey, 1990, Nutbrown, 1994). The term, in emphasising the importance of children's earliest marks for writing development, can give the message that pictorial representation is inferior to the more important role that the reading and writing of symbols has been given within the National Curriculum and within society in general. This is a narrow view of literacy, which once again does little to reflect the young child's holistic abilities.
Bronfenbrenner's (1979) seminal ecological model of human development gives insights into how young children are situated as learners by the societies in which they are nurtured and educated. His model is supported by studies of young children in home/ pre-school and school settings (Tizard and Hughes, 1984; Trevarthen, 1995; Schaffer, 1992) which have shown children to be
'…skilful in negotiating a diverse repertoire of relationships, actively contributing to the process of their own development and recognising that their status and power as social actors varies between contexts and cultures.' (Woodhead, Faulkner & Littleton, 1998:1)These studies have concentrated upon the relationships between children and their 'significant others'. Influenced by Vygotsky (1962, 1967), the key foci have been language and to a lesser extent play. Little is known, however, about the impact upon a child's use of drawing of firstly the different settings of home and pre-school or school, and secondly the roles taken by 'significant' others in 'formal' and 'informal' learning contexts, particularly over any length of time.
The influence of context on young children's drawing development
This paper takes a sociocultural approach to the study of young children's drawings. It recognises that:
Drawing is seen to have originated from children's physical action (Matthews, 1994; 1999) and play (Vygotsky, 1995). Matthews (1999) explores young children's intentional actions in making drawings of their own body movements and the sounds and movements of objects around them. He calls these 'action representations'. In common with Athey (1990) he describes development as 'an interaction between what is unfolding in the child and what is available within the environment' (Matthews, 1994). Athey concentrates on drawing as a reflection of children's inner schematic representations, the developing organisational or conceptual systems by which they make sense of diverse aspects of life. Matthews, however, sees children's drawings 'located within a family of expressive and symbolic actions used fluently by children between 3 and 4 years of age' (1999:49). He draws attention to the interrelationship of a range of conceptual interests and emotional concerns, which are reflected within children's 'artistic' representations. Supported by the work of Trevarthen (1980, 1995) he suggests that 'the basis for the expression of emotion and the representation of objects and events form within an interpersonal arena between caregiver and infant' (1999:17). It is within this interpersonal relationship that the child acquires 'skills in viewing, handling and visually tracking objects, plus the expressive and representational possibilities these might have…' (1999:18).
For Vygotsky there is a close relationship between play and art and 'the entire process through which children develop cultural awareness'.
'Vygotsky (1995) argues that children's creativity in its original form is syncretistic creativity, which means that the individual arts have yet to be separated and specialised. Children do not differentiate between poetry and prose, narration and drama. Children draw pictures and tell a story at the same time; they act a role and create their lines as they go along. Children rarely spend a long time completing each creation, but produce something in an instant, focusing all their emotions on what they are doing at that moment in time.' (Lindqvist, 2001:8)Play is seen by Lindqvist to create meaning. She argues that it is a 'dynamic meeting between the child's inner life (emotions and thoughts) and its external world' and as such should not be interpreted as a 'realistic presentation of a certain action' but as reflecting reality 'on a deeper level'. Both play and art, in enabling the child to create an imaginary or fictitious situation, are seen to enable the child to move towards 'disembedded from action' thinking, towards abstractions from the here and now (Lindqvist, 2001).
Building upon the work of Wells (1986) and Bruner (1996) the term 'meaning making' is used extensively when considering the child as a learner from a sociocultural perspective. Dyson (1993) sees a symbol, be it a word, picture or dance, existing because of a 'human intention to infuse some tangible form - a sound, a mark, a movement - with meaning and, thereby, to comment on or take action in the social world'. Symbol making is, for Dyson, 'the essence of being human' and drawing, as a symbolic system, is one of the ways humans liberate themselves 'from the here and now'. Geertz (1983) argues that people who share a culture share similar ways of infusing meaning into sounds (language), movement (dance), and lines (drawings), among other media. Children, by using symbols, join with others who share the same 'imaginative universe' or 'worlds of possibility' (Dyson, 1993:23). Dyson illuminates the way drawing is helped by the critical role of talk and gesture to become 'a mediator, a way of giving a graphic voice to an intention' (Dyson, 1993:24). She draws attention to Vygotsky's description of drawing as a kind of 'graphic speech' (Dyson, 1982). This adaptation places emphasis on drawing as an iterative process during which a child may display more than one of the listed features simultaneously, depending on the media, the task and the context.
Drawing as narrative in young children's development
If speech is seen to be internalised as thought (Vygotsky, 1978) can we assume that 'graphic speech' has its own internal visual narrative? Gallas (1994:xv) takes the view that children's personal narratives, formed in an attempt to order and explain the world from all aspects of their experience, 'are often part of the silent language that embodies thinking'. She takes 'an expanded view' of children's narratives, not confining them to the spoken or written word, but including the stories they tell from early childhood 'in dramatic play, in their drawings and paintings, in movement and spontaneous song.' In putting forward her view of the young child as a powerful meaning maker, Gallas draws attention to adults within school settings not enabling young children to make use of their 'enormous number of innate tools for acquiring knowledge' (xv) or their different modes of representation which might be visually, verbally or kinaesthetically based.
'…Children do not naturally limit the forms that their expressions take. Because adult communication relies so heavily on spoken and written language, however, schools necessarily reflect that orientation and channel children's narratives into a very narrow realm of expressions, in effect limiting rather than broadening the child's expressive capabilities.' (Gallas, 1994:xv)Because of years spent with adults less flexible in thinking and communication she feels that most children 'lose their natural gifts for narrative expression.' (xvi). There is a lack of recognition by most adults of the power of drawing in serving a narrative function for children by externalising their experiences, thoughts and feelings through visual images. Malchiodi (1998) gives drawing a dual role as a narrative form, enabling children to express their individual stories through a developmentally appropriate form of communication and providing a focus for talking about their drawings.
Given the emphasis on reading and writing within the statutory curriculum, the innovative work of Kress (1997) on young children's meaning making has importantly drawn attention to the need for a broader view of literacy, which includes both the reading and making of visual signs. He argues that children are bombarded with a variety of stimuli both static (pictures, signs, posters) and moving (T.V., video, computer imagery). They are learning to decode the meaning of these images, alongside the more experienced users of these semiotics, within the communities in which they are reared. Kress's thesis is that 'children act multi-modally, both in the things they use, the objects they make, and in the engagement of their bodies; there is no separation of body and mind' (ibid.: 97). He draws on detailed observations of his own young children engaged in multi-model representations using:
He calls these 'the energetic, interested, intentional action of children in their effects on their world' (114). He argues that:
'It is essential that .… children are encouraged …. in their fundamental disposition towards multi-modal forms of text and meaning making. …. Above all there will need to be particular emphasis on developing their awareness about the dynamic interaction between the various modes, and their awareness that all modes are constantly changing in their interaction with other modes; and through the sign maker's use.' (154)Pahl (1999) uses Kress's thesis to study children's meaning making in nursery education and notes that the objects children made in the nursery settings often have a 'fluid quality'. Children create layers of narrative as they represent and re-represent versions of stories in their play. A shopping basket made from a cereal packet and strips of card for role-play in the nursery might be transformed into a carrycot for a doll when the model was taken home. She argued that children had more opportunities to utilise fluidity in their meaning making at home where objects could be freely transformed from one function to another without the watchful gaze of an adult. She sees these 'lines of enquiry' offering scope for children to explore the gap between 'me' and 'not me' using the models they make as 'transactional objects'. The models children carry from nursery to home offer them opportunities to explore the inner workings of their minds through the outer material representations of their thinking shaped in particular ways by the environments in which they try to record their understanding of the world.
Drawing is seen by Kress and Pahl to be one of the many languages which children use to 'talk' about their world in informal settings, both to themselves and to others. Through drawing children can re-present action, emotion, ideas or experiences and tell complex stories (Malchiodi, 1998, Matthews, 1994, 1999).
Egan has drawn attention to the story form as a cultural universal which 'reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience.'(1989:2) Given the emphasis on a traditional view of literacy and narrative within the statutory English curriculum, it is not surprising that oral storying and story writing have received far more attention within research than storying through drawing. Exploring the young child's use of drawing from a socio-cultural perspective allows the impact upon the young child's drawing behaviours of the views and beliefs of older and more significant others across both home and pre-school settings to be highlighted. It also emphasises how the young child, operating at profound levels both cognitively and emotionally, uses narrative across modes of representation which include drawing.
Short introduction to project
This paper draws on data collected as part of a three year, longitudinal research project 'Young Children Drawing at Home, Pre-school and School: the influence of the socio-cultural context'. Evidence was collected for one month, at the beginning of the school year to compile case studies of seven children's use of drawing across home, pre-school and school settings. It was a longitudinal study that took place over a three-year period. Two key research instruments were used for data collection:
In addition contextual information was gathered via photographs/ digital images taken in the home and pre-school/ school contexts and, during the first phase of the project, observations of the children in their settings. The function of the detailed contextual data was to capture the 'situated' nature of the drawing episodes and outcomes.
The evidence was collected from September 1998 until November 2001 during a period of continuing change in the UK for all involved in both pre- and primary schooling. Government strategies introduced during this period included, for example, statutory baseline assessment, the Literacy Hour and the daily numeracy lesson. (www.qca.org.uk; www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/literacy; www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/numeracy;)
The following exemplars, drawn from the study, show how individual children use drawings as a narrative form to 'talk' to themselves and to others and by doing so construct new meanings. Each child's drawings reflect versions of meaning making from the socio-cultural context in which they construct their narratives: from TV, videos and signs, from book, magazine and computer based imagery. There is evidence that the cultural assumptions about drawing in home and school contexts affects what the children draw, how they draw and how often they draw. Yet each child demonstrates a unique drawing style and an exploration through line of intensely personal responses to experiences. 'In doing so they participate in the making of their culture' (Kress, 1997) and show themselves to be able and powerful storytellers.
Examples of Narratives in Drawings from the Case Studies
At just turned three Luke was the youngest child in our sample in the first phase of the data collection. He lived in an inner city council house with his mother, father and eighteen-month-old brother. Both boys attended a Family Centre for parts of the week.
At home his drawings revealed a fertile imagination and a preoccupation with 'scary' things. His drawing of a crocodile with scary teeth reflects a fascination with crocodiles (Figure 1). This preoccupation emerged in the narratives he wove into his solitary play episodes at home. His mother described him frantically 'rowing' a baby bath with coat hangers across the living floor with cushions strategically positioned as stepping stones trying to avoid an imaginary crocodile. But the scariness was also about fun. Mum and Luke had a song about crocodiles that they sung together. 'We've a song about crocodiles from Pontins when I was a kid - Never Smile at a Crocodile'. The second drawing from this period reflects Luke's interest in imagery from the television screen. His mother explained his habitual response to an advertisement for fruit pastilles which featured, bizarrely, a strawberry eating a little boy. (Figure 2) 'When he watches you can see him backing away from the telly.'
In the Family Centre Luke was preoccupied with cutting paper systematically into smaller and smaller strips. This was usually a solitary activity, completed in silence and with total concentration. The pattern of action was repeated in the dough. He was very dependent on the reassurance of his key worker and he often reassured himself of her whereabouts. The only self-chosen drawing activity recorded by the Centre staff during this phase of the research was 'Dr Jekyll When he Turned into a Nasty Monster' (Figure 3).
Luke retained his interest in all things scary throughout the three years of the project. His interest in conflict was reinforced by his father who encouraged his boys to toughen up by 'play fighting and wrestling' at home. An extract from a dialogue he had about his drawings with a mate when he was aged six gives a flavour of the love/hate relationship he maintained with the 'horror' industry. Here is the boys' conversation:
By the third year of the project Luke had transferred from the Family Centre to a Catholic primary school. Amongst the collection of drawings his teacher discussed with us this remarkable words and pictures diary that his mother worked up with him to recall the events of their family holiday. (Figure 4) It is a wonderful example of a parent sharing good memories with a child. It is hard to guess who enjoyed the activity more - mother or son! Not surprisingly then, one of Luke's drawings done just before he left the day-care nursery demonstrates the same lively and complex recording of salient features of his own experiences. His mother reported: 'His key worker wrote on each drawing so we'd know what it was. He had a fantastic story to tell with his picture, but it was that good we've forgotten. (He may remember).' When Luke reviewed this drawing a year later he said immediately: 'That's a story' though he found it hard to retell and simply commented on separate images. For example:
Two drawings, one from home and the other from school drawn the following day, both show bread-making machines. (Figures 5 and 6) His teacher was at a loss in trying to explain what had stimulated Luke to make this drawing at school, but characteristically tried to ascribe it to school influences: 'It was harvest time and we'd read The Little Red Hen, and one of the older classes had used that story as the basis of their class assembly. Now that could just be me making a connection….' It was Luke's father who finally made the connection: 'I think his Nan has got a bread making machine.' What is clear is that Luke was struggling to make sense of the mysterious and complex processes by which a machine delivered a perfect bloomer loaf for his Nan through representing it in his drawings.
Lianne's mother was a classroom assistant in her primary school so she had the advantage of a parent who could bridge the gap between the cultures of home and school. She had a seven-year-old brother. The house was untidy, slightly chaotic, warm and accepting. The children were actively encouraged to role-play all around the house. Storying was everywhere - through toys, puppies, videos, TV programmes and books. Her school start was a happy experience.
When we first encountered Lianne she had a Reception class teacher who encouraged the children to learn through practical, play-based activities. 'Bear in the stock cupboard' (Figure 7) was created in response to a narrative Miss K. created for the children about a new 'pupil', a bear, too shy to come out of the stock cupboard. Lianne wrote the message, which she read back as PLEASE COME OUT, to entice the bear out to join the children. The stock cupboard bear is on the left and she explained that the one on the right was her own bear from home making friends with the new pupil. The rainbow shapes at the bottom of the picture are bear caves to make him feel happy. Lianne posted this message under the stock cupboard door. To her delight, via Miss K., the bear replied asking if he could meet her bear. Her mother was of course complicit in the story and the shy bear was lovingly taken home for the weekend. A confident bear came back on Monday with a long tale about the adventures that he had shared with his friend at Lianne's house. This is an example of a rare occurrence in our data where significant adults in a child's life operated in two cultural contexts with the same commitment to interest in the child's multi-modal representations (Kress 1997).
Lianne was shocked by the transition from reception class to the formal requirements of Year One and the first 'run through' of the Literacy Hour. Her loss of role-play activity led her to constantly talk or lose attention and 'live in her mind'. Although at school her drawing was limited to small pictures with adult directed writing, at home she continued her school based role-play. Her ongoing narrative put her in charge and gave her some control. Figure 8 shows one of the many 'mark lists', which supported her activity.
By the third year of the project had Lianne 'got used to' more formal schooling. The dual preoccupations in her home drawings were with practising the mysterious symbolic systems embedded in the world of school knowledge and exploring the complexities of human relationships. Lianne is using drawing to integrate her inner experiences and perceptions, link her experience of the outside world with her inner self and to help her discover and affirm her relationships (Malchiodi, 1998). Amongst a string of drawings, half message and half narrative, featuring her friends, her mum and her dad, this is an example of the genre exploring love and friendship (Figure 9).
Jake's home life was characterised by encouragement from his literacy support teacher mother and engineer father to explore ideas and objects with equal enthusiasm and to relish physical freedom to play. He had a sister three years older than him. His mother said: 'People always comment on the fact that my children are verbally expressive … they can paint with words. My husband and I are articulate and we spend time talking with the children, though not necessarily playing with them.' Jake and his sister played out long and complex imaginary adventures about journeys or stories stimulated from books or their own experiences. They were discouraged from watching 'too much' television.
It is not surprising, given this resume of the culture of his home life, that Jake's narratives were predominantly through talk and action. His preference in material representation of his ideas was to work in 3D - lego, meccanno, cardboard boxes, small-scale vehicles. The drawings at home from this period are typical of those defined by Matthews (1999) as 'action representations'. Figure 10 is a drawing of magic spells. His mother described the way Jake moved fluidly from singing to talking and from action to representation of action as the narrative unfolded: 'Elizabeth and Jake were singing about magic spells. Jake was chanting and dancing. He went to the blackboard, picked up some chalk and drew a magic spell boat. He then continued to draw the boat, sea and gangway. He talked all the time, describing what he was drawing. The drawing was energetic and fluid. He used different colours and drew with the tip and the side of the chalk. He made a spell to make lug worms. He chanted 'Abracadabra lug worms', striking the board with the red stick of chalk.'
As we tracked Jake's progress over the three years he sustained a passionate interest in all fast moving things. At just four he drew Superjets (Figure 11), at five the frenzy of the Roller Coaster that his sister and Dad 'enjoyed' (but which he was too young to go on!) (Figure 12) and at six a Combine Harvester (Figure 13). By six Jake was competent at representing objects 'realistically'; but his interest in drawing representationally was always minimal and we suspect his mother, knowing that the researcher was due to collect the data, had a hand in the picture of the combine harvester. Figure 14 shows the magic moment recorded by his parents when, during a game of Pictionary at the age of five, he suddenly realised he could make things look like things. His growing confidence, and his desire to 'play to the audience' with his new found skills, is shown in the house drawing. The family audience had reacted with delight and laughter to the udders on his drawing of a cow. He capitalised on the attention by adding udders to his next drawing - of a house. Sadly, with little feedback from school staff from his more abstract narratives of movement and time shifts he drew less and less. A bright child, he quickly adapted to symbolic codes of schooling, writing and mathematical representations He was supported by his mother in gaining 'school' competencies. She quite literally coached him at home to fluency in these modes in order to ensure that he could have some 'choosing' time. He was then able to indulge his passion for 3D representations. She understood that this lively Summer born boy child would lose his positive disposition to learn in the thralls of too many seat based practice tasks in basic skills.
Holly's home life was dominated by a succession of new babies, strong involvement with a local church community and regular Sunday visits with a large extended family to her Nana who always provided drawing materials to keep the children occupied. The children were rarely allowed to watch television. At aged four, Holly's home drawings, done quickly and confidently, feature two aspects of relationships - spatial relationships of significant objects and spaces in her life and the human relationships of significant people in her life. This contrasts with Luke's preoccupation with scary things, Lianne's with the world of symbolic representations through play and Jake's with how things work and moving or changing objects.
At four Holly recalled accurately the salient features of the world she observed and interpreted in her drawings. Her recurrent drawings of church (Figure 15) show the details of Darren playing the guitar, spaces where adults and children gathered for worship and talk, and the entrances and exits to significant rooms. Her accurate drawing of the nursery classroom shows its salient features for Holly (Figure 16)- the construction area, quiet room, gluing area, domestic play area, Andrew beside Mrs Wilkinson having his birthday song and again strategically the escape routes, the doors. The domestic play area would have drawn Holly's attention particularly, because she played out narratives at home endlessly with a large collection of dolls, in particular Christopher and Annabelle, to inure herself against the chaotic demands of three younger siblings.
By the second year of data collection Holly's narratives had shifted to 'girlie' interests under the influence of her older cousins and the older girls she courted in the playground. Friendships and family were still of overwhelming importance to Holly. She told us that she had decided to be a singer when she grew up. Holly continued to pursue her personal agenda in drawings done at school. Figure 17 shows 'I Love my Cousins' and Figure 18 'Here are my friends'. However, by the third year of the project there was little evidence of her drawing at school. Her teacher dismissed her drawings as rushed and rather messy and she had learned that her style of narrative drawing simply did not 'fit' school templates.
At home Holly continued to produce a prodigious number of drawings. By the third year of the project, when Holly was six, the gendered nature of her drawings was well established. She explored images of hearts, princesses, mermaids, marriages and fashion - in particular exotic hairstyles. Figure 19 shows a side view of a girl so that she can explore the detail of her elaborate ponytail and fixtures. Figure 20 shows her version of her mum and dad getting married. She was influenced by fairy tale formats and combined speech bubbles with images to represent critical moments recalled from the stories - again usually moments imbued with strong emotional content. Figure 21 represents a moment in the story of 'The Little Mermaid'.
Evidence from the four case studies reaffirms the role of drawing in young children's learning about the world around them and their coming to terms with their own personal role/identities within the cultures in which they are growing up. Children use drawing both as a way of telling others what it is that matters to them, and as a way of exploring new ideas, concepts and emotions for themselves. As Gallas (1994) argues, the narratives they create in drawings are paralleled by their oral storying and role-play. Children move fluently from one mode of representation to another, often using play as the vehicle for their explorations of how to represent and re-represent what they know. For them there is no separation of the body and mind or of the emotions and intellect (Kress 1997).
The project also generated evidence of the importance of the cultural context in determining what form the children's drawn narratives took (Dyson 1982). Each child retained a highly personal drawing style throughout the three years, but each was strongly influenced by the images surrounding them. At home these images were from greeting cards, family games, television or video programmes, photographs, magazines, books and toys. Older brothers or sisters or members of extended families provided models of meaning making for the young children. As the children became more aware of their own identity as male or female, the gendered nature of their drawings became more apparent. Many of the parents in the project actively encouraged children to use a wide range of drawing genres. In all the homes, which were representative of contrasting socio-economic communities, felt tip pens, crayons, pencils and paper were made available for the children.
Within the cultural contexts of pre-schools and schools the messages surrounding the children were that symbolic systems of print and mathematics were what counted for the adults. Drawing was perceived by the practitioners in formal learning settings as a vehicle for reinforcing conceptual understanding, as a way of holding children on low level seat based occupational tasks, or as an opportunity to move pupils towards the goal of 'making things look like things' (Anning 1999). Story telling through drawings was not written into teachers' planned literacy activities. Even at pre-schools it was rare to find teachers who consciously planned art activities in which children might pursue their personal agenda in drawings. At Key Stage One these opportunities were limited to 'wet playtimes' (Anning and Ring 1994).
Yet the power of drawing for constructing and representing narratives was impressive amongst the seven ordinary young English children. It seems sad that we observed it declining through their first years at school.
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York St John College
Professor Angela Anning