Young Children’s Drawings: Marks, Meaning and Materials


imageI have been reading the Reggio Children book Mosaic of Marks, Words, Materials. It is a book dedicated to their ongoing research into the One Hundred Languages of Children as expressed in Loris Malaguzzi’s poem of the same name. This research focuses on the interplay between drawing and narration; on the interplay between marks, surfaces that receive the marks and the narration and stories of the children of the Pre-Schools and Infant Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

“Drawing and telling stories means imagining, analysing, and exploring spaces, forms, colours, words, metaphors, emotions, rhythms, and pauses, entering into a narrative dimension that is both internal and external to the self, playing on reality, fiction and interpretation. Though drawing and words are autonomous languages, for the children words and stories, silent or spoken, almost go hand in hand or intertwine with the drawing, creating an intelligent and often poetic mosaic.”

Mosaic of Marks, Words, Materials. Reggio Children (2015) p.15

It is a highly visual book, with many examples that at first seem familiar as they are the often early traces that young children make when involved in drawing, but it is the deep level of research that impresses me in how they observe and make sense of the interaction between the mark making implement and the surface that enables the mark to become visible. They notice how, for example, corrugated card, aluminium foil, bubble wrap, and acetate suggests and accepts marks from different thicknesses of markers, metallic ink markers, conte crayon, charcoal etc. No material therefore is neutral but suggestive of ideas to the children and by the children.

In one example, children play with ideas of camouflage, invisibility and secret messages as they use black markers on black paper. In another example, they research the ephemeral marks such as water brushed onto stone with one child, Luca aged 5.5yrs drawing, “The cloud that is disappearing…”

Drawing overlays using acetate is a strong feature of the work, enabling the children to experiment with backgrounds, foregrounds and combined drawings that can be projected and increased in size on the overhead projector. Sandpaper offers a scratching surface upon which to work oil pastels into stories about different sorts of giraffes. This book is full of examples of materials and surfaces and the narration of the children as they make drawings that intertwine with stories and imaginings that help the early childhood educator to understand more about the poetics that may lie behind their own children’s drawing and storying.

In the accompanying essays in the book, the teachers, pedagogista and atelierista’s involved in the work offer some ‘Interpretative Hypotheses’ that I find very useful in thinking about my work with teachers in the field of early childhood. They attest to the innate relationships that give narrative shape to our gestures through drawing. So often I have heard how some children, (most often boys) who are considered as reluctant ‘mark-makers’. I suggest there is no such thing, but rather a reluctant offer of materials that fail to ignite the imagination. The research in this book and accompanying exhibition reminds us of the importance of palettes of materials that invite, provoke and challenge children to make experiments with not only the marks but also the surfaces upon which they draw. A tub of markers and a variety of A4 photocopy paper paper in different colours is simply not enough if we want our children to express what is already inside of them.

Another interpretive hypothesis is that when exploring the materials and surfaces for drawing, many ‘technical accidents’ occurred that led to powerful learning and expression that could be re-titled as ‘creative potentials’. These seemingly mistaken and unexpected occurrences (such as an accidental smudge of pastels or marker on acetate) led to evolving ideas about the ephemeral, the fleeting and in one case led to poetic representations of the effect of the wind.

For those working with very young children, an interesting interpretation was how body language that accompanied the drawing and verbal experience was considered as almost being a ‘theatrical performance’. I liked this idea as it marries with ideas that John Matthews holds about children’s earliest mark-making as being embedded with the experience of the body. Coming from a more schematic perspective, Matthews (2003) in Drawing and Painting: Children and Visual Representation talks about how children’s early movements (such as the crossover of the arm across the body, and the reaching out in front of them) are often the marks first created upon a surface in the form of the horizontal arc (using the movement of the crossing over of the body) and the vertical arc (using the up down of the reaching out in front movement). When observing closely even as babies as they trail a finger through custard or spilt gravy you see them observing you, connecting with you in a game of can you see me do this? It is indeed a performance that invites the other to play also!

This book has much to give the early childhood educator to think about in terms of materials, surfaces and the meaning that children give to marks. It will certainly accompany me in my conversations with teachers and will encourage me to observe even closer the expressive richness of children’s drawings and the narration so that accompany them.

2 thoughts on “Young Children’s Drawings: Marks, Meaning and Materials

  1. It depends on where you are based. I purchased my copy from Sightlines-Initiative in the UK. Other Reggio Children networks will also stock it like NAREA in the US. You can also get it direct from Reggio Children’s website, in their ‘bookshop’. Hope this helps!


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