Put a crayon into a 12-month-old’s hand, and he will eat it. The 16-month-old, however, will follow your instructions and make scribbles. The most intriguing question that arises with these drawings is: do they mean something, or not?
The first sign to look for is intention or purpose. Usually the idea of intention occurs to a child in his second year. The toddler will start applying his intention, or will, to anything and everything: his walk, his grabbing and moving things around, his speech, etc. Armed with a pencil (not too sharp!) or a crayon, he will purposefully start making shapes.
These shapes may not look like much to us, adults, because we tend to equate intention in “art” with “representation”. But at first the child’s intention is not at all to represent things. His first purpose in art is movement: simply holding a crayon, moving his arm and hand, feeling the movements, controlling and refining them. He may or may not be interested in the result of his movements on paper.
- Scribbles and spirals
Soon his motor-control will improve, and his shape-making will become more deliberate and elaborate. Weak and spidery wisps become bolder and more varied: straight and curved lines, zigzags and dots mark the page.
A case in point are the swirls. The young toddler at this stage doesn’t yet possess the motor control to make his hand go full-circle to connect the line (to make the snake eat its tail). He also can’t stop yet, at or near that point, so one circular movement will follow another, resulting in spirals. All these shapes are called “scribbles”.
- But “it’s a bunny!”
The scientific community, childcare specialists, and most parents agree that none of these scribbles are representational. If an adult insists on asking “what is it?” the child may answer “a bunny rabbit.” But this is probably an opportunistic and “post hoc” (or after the fact) interpretation on the child’s part.
He did not intend it to “be” a bunny rabbit. It is even likely that he does not really understand what it means to represent. He simply answered the adult’s question because the latter wanted it so much – children at this stage want to please their parents. And he said it was “a bunny” because bunnies were probably on his mind.
A good test? Ask him about that drawing again after a couple of days. This time he will probably respond that it is an airplane, or anything that occupies him at that moment.
- Don’t ask “what is it?”
If you want the young child to express himself freely in his drawings, it is best not to ask the question: “what is it?” At this early stage the child intends to, simply, move, and he needs to work on his motor-skills in his own time, on his own terms.
Asking “what is it?” means imposing an older child’s and an adults’ intention upon him. At best, the young child will not answer meaningfully. At worst, he will be frustrated both in his early attempts to impose his will onto something, and in his early attempts to improve his motor-control. They’ve only just emerged from infancy and babyhood, and are only just starting to be children: there’s no need to hurry them into an older world.