Children's Art Is Not Just Kid Stuff, Says a Psychologist, but Maps of Their Growth

updated 07/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1980 01:00AM

"Once I drew like Raphael," Pablo Picasso said, reflecting on his career, "but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like children." So it was, in a sense, with Harvard-based psychologist Howard Gardner. After years of studying and writing mainly about artistic development in adults, he set out to discover the role children's drawings play in their emotional and creative development. The result is Artful Scribbles (Basic Books, $15), a highly readable examination of how art becomes a tool of self-discovery and expression for youngsters. Gardner, 36, grew up in Scranton, Pa., where his mother was a civic leader and his father a wholesaler of children's books. He earned his B.A. in psychology in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1971, both from Harvard. Since 1973 he has been co-director of Project Zero, a research group studying creativity and located at his alma mater. Separated from his wife, Gardner lives in Cambridge and frequently visits his children Andrew, 3, Jay, 8, and Kerith, 11, whose artwork provided much of the raw material for Artful Scribbles. The professor discussed his views with Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

Why is drawing such an important medium for children?

My personal view is that the child between ages 2 and 8 is naturally interested in difficult abstract ideas: conflict between individuals, the nature of the self, space, time and so on. The child doesn't have the language skills to talk about these issues. But he wrestles with them through fairy tales, TV shows, pretend-play and especially drawing—the first and most accessible form of written language you find almost everywhere in the world.

How does artistic development begin?

A child as young as 1 year old will make marks. But the important thing at that stage is just the physical satisfaction of having the marker in his or her hand. He's as likely to put it in his mouth as draw with it. At about 18 months to 2 years, kids begin to care whether the marker leaves a trace or not. That's an important change: They now see the marker as a tool for exploring the environment.

How do they start exploring it?

By making marks that are the most physically natural to produce: dots, which come from banging up and down; arcs, which come from swinging the forearm back and forth. They soon begin focusing more on what's being produced, and this brings them eventually to two basic achievements: circles and straight lines. Then, anywhere from age 2 to 3½, the scribbling period climaxes with the appearance of mandalas—crossed lines within a circle. The mandala is as universal throughout history as any graphic entity known. Finding mandalas in a child's work is arresting because, in a way, it's the first time he gets his act together.

Do children have drawing styles at this age?

No, but they do have different ways of making sense of the world, which you can see in their artwork. The kids basically fall into two categories. Patterners are very concerned with shapes and configurations. Dramatists are very concerned about stories. If you give a set of blocks to a kid who is a patterner, he'll make elaborate structures. A dramatist will more likely say, "This block is the mommy, that block is the daddy, and they're going to the store."

When does the child make the transition to representational drawing?

Around the age of 3 or 4, the mandalas begin to develop into tadpole figures. The child doesn't really care that human beings don't have arms sticking out of their heads, he just wants the image to stand for something he knows in the real world. In fact, the child begins naming things he draws long before anything is really recognizable.

Does it look like the real thing to him?

Well, I think he engages in this romancing, as I call it, in a wishful way—maybe to help the drawing look more like the thing in mind. Also, giving a name is a way of gaining a certain power over something. And finally, it's a game with the parents. Parents are always asking "What is this?" and they're delighted when the kid gives an answer.

Should parents encourage their children to draw?

It would be artificial suddenly to throw yourself into art for your kid's sake if you yourself don't get much pleasure from it. And even if you are interested, I think it's appalling to say, "Now that Sesame Street is over, Johnny, we're going to draw for an hour." The best approach is to let children set their own pace by creating a supportive environment and by leaving supplies around for them to play with. Felt-tip markers, for instance, are great fun. They've probably done more for artistic development than anything since the introduction of the pencil.

How is that?

Well, a marker requires less pressure than a crayon or chalk, so it's easy to gain a lot of control rather rapidly. Being fatter than a pencil, it's easier to hold. It's not as difficult to wield as a brush. The colors are lovely, and the felt tip itself is kind of sensuous.

What about finger painting?

As a sophisticated tool for expressing ideas or feelings, it's limited. But it's good for emotional release, and it probably has some therapeutic value for kids who have problems controlling their emotions.

Can drawings reveal emotional problems?

To a sensitive, properly trained clinician, drawings can provide a window into the child's world. But nothing could be more dangerous than to take a kind of cookbook, this-means-that approach. For example, a psychiatrist who studied a girl's drawings announced that the fact that she always drew at the bottom of the paper was a sign of great inferiority. Well, another therapist went to watch the girl and it turned out the easel was too high. She just couldn't reach.

When does children's art reach its creative peak?

In my opinion, between the ages of 5 and 7. That's when the child has basic techniques well enough in hand that he knows things will look recognizable. He can also make rapid connections between different parts of his life and his personality. Drawings from this period are often very vibrant and dramatic; they have a remarkable sense of balance and composition. In certain ways, kids 5 to 7 are reminiscent of the mature artist.

How?

One thing is the satisfaction both children and artists get out of it. Another is a willingness to follow their own star, to be unconcerned whether their efforts meet cultural standards of worth or pictorial accuracy. Most important, they both use art to grapple with basic philosophical and emotional issues, although in children it isn't a conscious process.

How are deep feelings dealt with?

It doesn't really happen until children get to the representational stage. Then you see it in their choice of subject matter. Boys, for instance, are especially attracted to superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman and Star Wars characters, maybe because they have hidden powers. I think the child feels he has hidden powers, including destructive powers, which he's a little afraid of. Playing with these kinds of symbols is cathartic. Another aspect is that if you can draw Darth Vader you have some control over him, and that is absolutely crucial.

Why do girls love to draw horses?

Horses combine power with the potential for gentleness and cuddle-ability, if you will. Horses also raise the issue of mastery, which the girl is trying to grapple with. It would be silly to say girls inherit the capacity to draw horses. But in our culture, caring has been made more of a requisite for girls than boys, and so horses have become a more appropriate symbol. When boys draw animals they tend to do dinosaurs, which are less cuddly and more powerful.

What happens to their artistic impulses after the age of 7?

For one thing, children's dependence on drawing for expression lessens as their language and numerical skills increase. My view is that the creativity and aesthetic interest drops off and the works become very stylized.

Why this fall from grace?

The kid is devoting so much energy to making the thing look the way it should that he has lost the feeling for the medium and how it works. A similar process is going on in other areas of his life. He's concerned with learning rules and doing things "right."

Does creativity eventually resurface?

In some individuals. But most adolescents, like most adults, don't draw. There's a crisis youngsters encounter around age 12 or 13. Their critical faculties get so developed that they look at their own work and become discouraged. I think art education is deficient; it holds up a Norman Rockwell ideal instead of showing kids that there are many ways of achieving artistic ends.

What about cartooning?

That's partly a reaction to those conformist pressures. For the talented young artist who hasn't mastered representational accuracy, cartooning is a solution. If the drawing doesn't look quite right, he can always say, "That's how I wanted to do it."

Does doodling have significance?

For some people it may be a form of artistic activity. Elliot Richardson's doodles, which used to be sold at auctions, were very interesting. For most people it's like knitting—a subsidiary activity to engage in while doing something else. Little kids never doodle, because when they draw they give it everything they've got.

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