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.


Journeys into Learning: Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

A sketch of some fabric found in the markets of Dakar that represents visually my idea of learning.

Many of you who read my blog will have noticed how I refer to the rhizome as a pattern in which I see learning happening in both children and adults.  (Deleuze and Guttarri).  It is akin to how the internet works – a way of jumping and landing on different pads or nodules before leaping off to another that connects.  The spaces inbetween are not separators of knowledge but rather nutrient rich connectors of learning that for me signify the act of the journey of learning.  I like the metaphor of the rhizome because it is in movement in many directions with no specific entry or exit points, or particular progressive pathways and is akin to Loris Malaguzzi’s metaphor of learning being like a tangled bowl of spaghetti.

My journey into the philosophy of Loris Malaguzzi and the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia began 15 years ago. As an artist working in education undertaking residences I first came across the work of the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia as an exhibition.  I never got to the exhibition that first time, I just had the leaflet…I just didn’t know how important it was going to be for me.  I began by reading, from the source…for me it was all about the library, real bookshops at the time and not blogs, Pinterest or Facebook back then!  Reading from the source is so important, it is easy to become lost in interpretations of an approach to learn that is so context based to the city of Reggio Emilia and Italian culture.  So my advice is to head to the Reggio Children website and find your countries official Reggio Children International Network Member organisation, which is NAREA in the US or Sightlines Initiative in the UK, others include Red Solare, The Reggio Children Institute, REANZ and purchase books published by Reggio Children and books recommended by them.  It is easy to get lost online…

sightlines-w200But then again, getting lost is kind of fun and can lead to the unexpected finds.  I prefer to head out with tools of orientation.  At Sightlines Initiative we talk about ‘Tools and Compasses’ that enable us to go on a journey of discovery, of research but without getting lost in the wilderness.  These are found below and reprinted from ReFocus Journal 6

Values and characteristics in developing environments of enquiry : Tools and CompassesUnknown

Values & principles

  • Education is the creative process of exchange, relationship and understanding of oneself, others and the world.
  • Things, people and experiences … The educative environment looks for skills to be in relationship and explore relationship. Dialogue is of absolute importance in its everyday practice.
  • The awareness of constant possibility is a quality not a limitation. Knowledge is always open to change.
  • ‘Listening and exchange’ is the dominant idea in pedagogical practice, and in the learners’ experience. The practice of listening, with evaluation and synthesis, enables educators to interpret children’s competencies and questions, and to construct with them suitable learning experiences.Images & understandings
  • Children are rich in curiosity and competence and potential. They are innately sociable and seek exchanges.
  • The desire and predisposition to be curious, to enquire, to make hypotheses, to interpret and make sense of our experiences, to be in relationship, are basic human characteristics.
  • Our learning spaces need to be imbued with the characteristics of curiosity and sociability.Qualities & tools
  • Time – space – attention: the three basic tools, creating the foundation of the educative experience. They are the responsibility of educators in collaboration with children and their families.
  • Dialogue is a tool as well as a value. Regular and detailed reflection processes are vital in the co-construction of sociable learning journeys.
  • Pedagogical documentation is a vital tool in making learning visible for educators, children and families.
  • The schoolspace needs to be a studio for exploration, examination and exchange. It can be a place where we bring the tools of all our senses to the business of learning, across all the perceptual modes and expressive languages.

These values and characteristics keep close to me, as a guide for all that I do and approach.  They are not a set of rules, or closed actions, but rather a set of thoughts for not getting lost.  They came out of discussion and many years of thinking about what happens in Reggio Emilia and in how we construct together our own creative and reflective pedagogic practice here in the UK.  Reggio is often referred to asa mirror, not to initiate or copy but to use to reflect on our own contexts.  

I share these thoughts in the spirit of encounter and exchange.  For me these two important words are framing my year of 2015 – to encounter new perspectives and to be IN exchange with as many a possible.  Facebook, blogs and Twitter make that all so much easier now.  A wonderful blog and connected post to this is a recent connection made with Diane Kashin.  This blog is inspired by her own on the same subject, so go see that too, comment on them, and contemplate your own journey and tools and compasses.  I attach an image of a quote she shared here that encapsulates the idea of journeying with others.


For further information please feel free to contact me here or through Sightlines Initiative.