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.


Technology in Early Childhood Education: Tools and Languages

digital-map-fullIf we are to develop new pedagogical approaches that value digital and technological ‘tools’ as capable of expressive and creative potential then we must look to the digital landscape as a range of possible languages rather than ‘tools’.  In this, I mean, how can we view digital languages as poetic and aesthetic, as a means of narrating stories of life and the world and constructing new ways of knowing and knowledge. 

If we consider clay, we can view this substance as both a material/tool and language.  It can be used as a material/tool in which to develop fine motor skills through exploration of its properties, or it can be used in a context of ideas and thinking, where it is used to narrate and communicate meaning.  It is the latter context in which myself and a group of UK and Swedish early childhood centres (see below) are currently researching.

Certainly, when I began working in ECE 20 years ago, where computers were present they were often used to develop skills in mouse control and page navigation.   I remember then testing the boundaries of possibility by taking in my then huge laptop and being surprised at how 3 year olds were capable of exploring image manipulation in early versions of Adobe Photoshop.  I could see the shift happening from the “What if” exploration of the material (in this instance, laptop and Photoshop) to the emergence of ideas of expression that communicated a thought about something within a realm of what Anna Craft would call  “Possibility Thinking”.

As a network of researchers we are particularly interested in those types of apps, their usage and modalities that Howard Gardener discusses that can promote a strong sense of identity, allow deep relationships, and stimulate creativity. Our challenge is to go beyond the ways that apps are designed to be used so they can make visible the diversity of children’s experiences and thinking, and become capable of narrating and expressing new ideas.  This is not easy as many children’s app developers create apps, for example animation apps, but with pre-loaded characters and backgrounds that children can use.  These apps, although intuitive for children to use are creatively constrained already in the use of templates and pre-loaded material. They are easy to make a simple animation with but often without the depth of thinking that children are capable of.

Other digital modalities such as digital projection and green screen can be as playful in nature as role play and open ended materials and these form a great potential for multi-modal expression with children.   Also, the ways in which digital endoscopes and microscopes can enable the re-proposal of the familiar world of nature in unexpected and complex ways that offer curious new worlds and environments to explore to generate new, imaginative ideas and questions.

As a research group we are interested in Gregory Bateson’s ideas of cybernetics, of systems, patterns and relationships, and will look for those connective patterns generated in the in-between spaces between children, digital languages and the natural world.  Children already have a wealth of knowledge and an openness to ideas, we are interested in these new patterns of thinking that digital languages propose to children as we suspect that these will transform our pedagogy and approaches to learning.

In a weeks time, 10 educators and myself travel to Stockholm, Sweden for our first exchange in this research project.  It is a blended approach that uses social media networks as well as offline, realtime exchanges together with digital and non digital materials.   We are exchanging learning stories and reflecting on each others work in a process of active professional learning about children’s relationship to the digital and natural world.  We are seeking and exploring ways for young children to connect across classrooms and across verbal and non-verbal languages.  We aim to create a body of research in the form of case studies, publications, a conference and a range of online resources.  It’s a very exciting time!

A possibility of a beginning…

“It’s starting to grow…slowly…it’s not growing yet, no not yet because the leaves haven’t come out.” 
“It growed by itself because it’s invisible.”
 Dancing with beans that grow. Ashmore Park Nursery, Wolverhampton

Dancing with beans that grow. Ashmore Park Nursery, Wolverhampton

Two children are interacting with a  full screen moving time-lapse projection of a growing bean.  Their own projected shadows become as one with the projected image, both projections combining as a single image.  As children discuss their movements and the beans moments they consider what growing is, both in language and through movement.  It is this coming together, this blending of modalities that we are most interested in.


“You pull this lever and this lever and this lever and then it will be grown… and then it lifts up.” 
Experimenting with wire levers to make the plant grow. Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton

Alongside of these children, and interweaving amongst all the languages available for the children to express their ideas were others generating ideas of germination through drawing and clay.  The clay offered opportunity for mechanical and physical expression of showing how the bean might grow.  The drawing offered opportunity for visualising the ideas through imagery and ‘talk and draw’.  All of these interweaving languages lend themselves to future ideas of stop motion animation (amongst others). Therefore we can begin to see where a traditional material such as clay may begin a dialogue with a digital language rather than concentrate solely on the app, the pre-loaded story characters and pre-generated backgrounds.  In this way, children’s own creative and critical thinking creates both the context and the content.



The Schools involved in this research are:

Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Hillfields Nursery School and Children’s Centre, Coventry, UK

Madeley Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Phoenix Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Lange Erik Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Barnasinnet Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Vintergatan Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Sma Vänner Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

With thanks to Ashmore Park Nursery School for enabling me to share this material.



EU flag-Erasmus+_vect_POSWe are very happy to be funded by Erasmus Plus in our shared research into new digital pedagogies with young children.