Drawing as Meaning Making

drawing-428383_1280From Reggio, we gain a perspective that the ‘Arts’ are equal and co-existing ‘languages’ of expression and communication alongside and together with other ‘languages’… of science… of mathematics… of written word… of other ways of knowing, describing and discovering the world.  Loris Malaguzzi’s poem,  “No Way.  The Hundred is There” is testament to this.

Materials in this context are referred to as languages that are capable of expression and communication.  However, it suggests that there is an ‘if’ there somewhere…

When working with early childhood educators, one of the things we jointly ponder is the issue of skills and if children must first understand the sensorial properties of materials such as clay, paint, charcoal, markers etc. to then be able to engage in representational, expressive and communicative purposes.  It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters what is this, what does it do… and then through working with it begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  It fits in a similar way to how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a slide between a realm of finding out and discovering something before using it to represent a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication.”  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts.”  Therefore children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

I have wondered for a long time about the process of meaning making in the act of drawing and in how that meaning can change across contexts.  For example, I once watched a child drawing and after a while she declared to me it was a cat.  Not five minutes later the same child, with the same drawing, told another educator it was a Beanie Baby.  I was left feeling a little confused, was I wrong in my understanding or was the child wrong?  Well it’s not going to be the child, it will always be me!  It seems that meaning making is far more complex, and more generative of multiple meanings that may or may not connect in a logical manner.


I find this particular drawing that I have shared in a TEDx talk here fascinating for many reasons.  One, because it ‘represents’ something huge and almost unimaginable neatly contained on a single piece of paper.  Two, because the narrative that accompanies it is a strong theory of how the sun and moon works, and three, because of the sheer beauty and aesthetic of it from such a young child.  But let us not (as my good friend and colleague Louise Lowings would say) get lost in the awe and wonder of it, for it might just dazzle us into doing and thinking nothing more about this,  thus remaining fixed and static in our thinking ourselves.

If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking.  The meaning as dictated through her words would be interpreted as singular and unchangeable.  But Sylvia Kind is suggesting that there is more going on.

Now I read this drawing as a generative act, of thinking in action; an active inquiry into the physics of the solar system.  She is not only actively trying to explain something but is also at the same time trying to understand it herself through the action of drawing and the movement of the material across a piece of paper.  It is rich in description, of texture, space, relations, and movement made in a social engagement between where the marker meets the paper, herself and the atelierista who was observing and listening closely to what she was doing and saying.  There was an interaction, it was intra-active.  An encounter between what she knew and what she was becoming to know.  She was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them (to paraphrase Pablo Picasso).  And of course there is the interaction with the audience, of who views the work and their own meaning making.

When viewing a piece of art, we the audience, are drawn into the world of making sense and meaning of that work, its materials, its presence.  The meaning making therefore does not just lie with the maker but simultaneously sits with the viewer too.  Therefore, this drawing is part of a complex creative process, what Sylvia Kind calls an object of encounter rather than just being a drawing that represents or communicates a fixed thought.  Rather it is relational and interdependent.

“…art as a state of encounter considers that meanings are constituted in the relation between things and in movements of disruption of previously held ideas.”

Kind (2010)

So, and with this is mind, I can now re-describe this drawing as an encounter or event as being:

Sociable – and in a process of exchange with others (those who were present but also those who are and become the audience)

Relational – in that it is situated with an interdependent system of meaning making where ideas connect with those in the making, a sense of becoming

Generative – of negotiating meaning, knowledge and understanding with and through the materials to hand


It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children

Hold an awareness – of our our positioning as audience or partner in drawing

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static

To act in researchful ways  – to listen and look out for the connections and interdependencies that become visible (or remain invisible) between the context – maker – audience that are not always logical in order, or sequence

To adjust our pedagogy – to see drawing and other forms of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions and not a simple linear journey from developing skills and understanding affordances to expression and communication of a singular thought.



Malaguzzi, L.  No Way.  The Hundred is There.  Accessed at http://www.thewonderoflearning.com/history/?lang=en_GB on 5th March 2017

Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.



3 thoughts on “Drawing as Meaning Making

  1. I love this article! I have recently been shown a book that I can’t stand, by more than one person!: “I am better than your kids. – The Best Page In The Universe”.As a teacher, I’ve grown to be patient with the process of a child’s learning and understanding of the world around them. Hardly ever do they get it right on the first try (do you? Does anyone?), because it’s a process. Making mistakes along the way is essential for growth. If someone steps in, during this process, and simply criticizes and tells someone they’re wrong, the process ends there. There is no more growth. They think their inquiry and investigation have failed, and they’ll go no further. Art is also a process. Any true artist knows that one piece of work is never “finished”. It is always in a state of reworking it. The reason being, a piece of art is an active thought process, and is ongoing. It is the visual representation of thought. Like this article says, “If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking…she was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them.” Then we have adults who think it’s funny to compile children’s art, into a book, and criticize it to glorify themselves. People have shown this book to me because “you’re a teacher, you’ll find this book hilarious!” Really? I find this book small-minded and the people that laugh at it extremely uneducated about what children’s art is really all about. Something someone (probably my own mom or dad) once said to me stuck, and I say it to my students all the time. It goes something like: adults oftentimes say “I can’t draw,” or “I can’t even draw a stick figure”. In reality that is their echo of what some adult told them along the way, and so they believed it and stopped trying. If you try, and keep trying you never know what you’ll come up with. Comments like the ones in this book are the kind that halt the thinking/learning process. Adults who say they can’t draw, probably say that because someone told them they can’t draw. They took it as failure, and their efforts stopped there. Their thought process and inquiry were halted by some egotistical, uneducated adult that simply told them their dog didn’t look like a dog. After that, and on into adulthood, they carry with them the idea that they’re “bad at art”. That is preposterous! Art making is thinking on paper (or whatever other media), so are you saying you’re bad at thinking?
    In conclusion, my comment is not to excite drama or negativity, just to agree completely with this article. This article reaffirmed my dislike of the book “I am better than your kids. – The Best Page In The Universe”. Please stop sharing this book with me, I don’t think it’s funny or cute. I think it’s uneducated, ridiculing, narcissistic and cruel. I love kids’ art. It’s one of the coolest things ever! Thank you, mom and dad, for educating me about how wonderful art and learning are, and how important education is.


  2. Thank you for words! And so happy you found this aligning with your point of view. I haven’t seen the book you mention, and I don’t think I want to anyway now… thanks again for your response.


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