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.


The Journey into Children’s Drawing

The Language of Drawing

510xR6NA+7LI have always been both before and since the research of my MA days an avid interested party in the strategies and content of children’s drawing.  I am currently reading the new book from the Contesting Early Childhood series published by Routledge entitled “Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia” edited by Calgari, Castagnetti, Giudici, Rinaldi, Vecchi and Moss and was delighted to come across some writings on the subject by Loris Malaguzzi himself (pp.308-312)

Malaguzzi describes drawing as a language (one of many), as a natural and biological language belonging to children that is constantly in conversation with many other languages available to children.  (See Malaguzzi’s The One Hundred Languages of Children poem).  From the outset of his description of drawing, Malaguzzi reminds us of the great responsibility of adults to read and interpret these visual communications.  It is with great sadness that I see many a child’s drawing simply placed in a going home box or drawer without any form of real reading or interpretation of it. They are valued, but as pieces of children’s ‘mark-making’ or as a precursory stage to writing and have become more about participating in a process of drawing than valued as a communicative language in their own right.  I wrote about Drawing as a Communicative Language here.

Malaguzzi, reminds us that drawing is “refined and diversified through children’s life experiences.”  Drawing when viewed in this way is something to be re-elaborated over time (not necessarily the same drawing but the same subject) and offers the educator a way of seeing drawing as an attribute of children’s capacity for critical thinking.  With each new drawing made, there is a refinement of process and form and of the ideas that sit behind it.  The drawings are never fixed with one singular meaning but are rather, as Malaguzzi tells us, multi-factored, dynamic, evolving, ambitious, and unfolding with meaning(s).

“Children’s journey in drawing (through the drawing, through this evolving language because it constantly accompanies children’s evolution) produces different and sometimes discordant attitudes towards the relations between themselves and the world, between themselves and things, between themselves and situations, themselves and feelings and so on.” p309

The drawings therefore act as sites of relational exchange, they are a visual becoming rather than a recall or remembering of something past.

IMG_6560I work with a network of schools for whom drawing is central to their pedagogy as a method amongst many methods of visualising children’s thinking, their ideas, their communications, their theories.  One such example is this drawing from Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK.  What appears as a simple charcoal line on a strip of paper is in fact a ‘seed’s song’.  It was created whilst singing a song made up by the 3 year old drawer to help seeds grow.  What might seem at first as a sweet but naive idea is connected to current explorations into plant to plant communication strategies, which makes his idea seem not so naive after all.   Also, within this genesis of an idea is it possible that he is creating a musical score of some sort, a visualisation of one language (singing/music) into another (drawing/musical notation)?

The Pleasure of Drawing


Malaguzzi also speaks of the pleasure of drawing.  Pleasure as defined as a form of energy.  He names the ‘pleasures’ that characterise the act of drawing as:

  • A motor pleasure – a feeling in the body and of nervous activity that gives pleasure when in the act of drawing
  • A visual pleasure
  • A rhythmic-temporal pleasure – the rhythm and flow of a pencil or marker upon a surface that breaks up space in many directions
  • A spatial pleasure – the organisation of space through drawing
  • A self-identifying pleasure – the seeking and giving of meaning and identity to marks made
  • A pleasure of repetition
  • A pleasure of knowing and learning – of making permanent or ‘fixing the event’, the what has happened or the object in terms of what is known about it
  • A pleasure of the aesthetic – to know when a drawing is just right, balanced in harmony with your ideas

So, Malaguzzi reminds us that:

 “…reading children’s drawings is something very serious, very committed, very difficult, very responsible.  To interpret a drawing we meed to have competency, passion, and a capacity for getting inside the children’s situation and the operation they are carrying out…

The risk we run is of classifying too quickly and putting things in order too soon, without thinking sufficiently, without waiting sufficiently long, of not knowing how to wait, and not knowing how to interpret children’s acts.”  p311

He ends with this important statement:

“In other words we have started on a journey to the source of children’s thinking.”