Pictures of health – why drawing is a great boost for children’s development

Pictures of health – why drawing is a great boost for children’s development
Our research found that children whose parents spent longer with them while they drew took more enjoyment from their drawing. (Photo: iStock)

Drawing is much more than an indoor pastime for bored kids. It can serve as therapy, or as a non-verbal way to express themselves, and it increases their creativity and imagination.

When the weather’s bad and there’s no prospect of a trip to the park, we might well reach for crayons, pencils and paper as a way to keep our children entertained. But drawing is much more than a fun activity. It has wide-ranging benefits for their development.

Here, we outline some of the ways drawing can be beneficial to children – for communication, memory and learning – and how parents can support their children as they express themselves creatively.

Drawing allows children to take their experiences of the world and transform them by making new connections and relationships through their inventive minds. Their knowledge, memories and fantasies all feed their imagination, and drawing allows them to explore, build on and record their own creative and imaginative ideas.

One of us (Richard Jolley) conducted research on the use of drawing in Chinese infant schools, which teach children aged from three to six years. Building on a long-standing focus on teaching young children representational drawing skills, the Chinese infant art curriculum also facilitates children’s enjoyment of drawing through making creative and expressive pictures from their imagination.

When children were asked to draw where they came from, one boy drew a rose – a symbol of Kunming, the city where he lived. He said that he had come from the rose, and drew his hair covered with red pollen.

Psychologists working with children often ask them to draw. Parents may find drawing a useful way to gain greater insight into their children’s experiences and personal reflections.

Drawing also allows children to express themselves and communicate with others. A child can graphically relive a happy event, such as a birthday party, or draw some sad feelings as a therapeutic exercise to help with an event such as a bereavement.

Drawing is an important medium in child art therapy. It provides a non-verbal way to communicate the wide range of emotional and behavioural difficulties they might be struggling with, leading to change and growth.

Learning through pictures

Drawing can help children learn. Research shows that using drawing as a teaching activity can increase their understanding in other areas, such as science.

A group of children were taught two strategies to help them learn a scientific concept. One strategy involved sketching out ideas and the other did not. Among the students who performed each strategy well, those who used drawing had a better understanding of the topic.

Drawing may also help improve children’s memory. Research has found that children give more information about a previously experienced event when they are asked to draw it while talking about it. Drawing has been found to improve children’s recall of events from a year earlier.

Practice makes perfect – and this is of course true of drawing. It is an exercise in problem-solving, as children try to produce a two-dimensional image that stands for an object or scene from a three-dimensional world. With age, practice and instruction, children typically produce increasingly visually realistic representations of the subject matter. In this process children are experimenting with different lines, shapes, spatial alignment and proportions.

How parents can help

First, we can help our children draw and learn through drawing by simply giving them the materials and time to use them.

Encouragement to draw is also important. An Arts Council England report found that many children do not receive encouragement to take part in arts activities, but that those children who did were more likely to engage in the arts as adults. This suggests that encouragement may be important, not just for current engagement but also to benefit in the future from engaging in art.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Arise Eagle’: Khayelitsha art gallery founder hopes to show parents that children can ‘make it’ as artists

You could also try spending time with your child while they draw, perhaps chatting with them. If you are chatty and supportive, children are likely to find it encouraging.

We carried out research to find out about what affected children’s experiences of drawing. We found that children whose parents spent longer with them while they drew took more enjoyment from their drawing.

Psychologists working with children often ask them to draw. Parents may find drawing a useful way to gain greater insight into their children’s experiences and personal reflections. Or, draw alongside your child. Research has shown that children often use drawings made by others, such as cartoons or drawings by their parents or siblings, as inspiration for their own drawings.

Our research found that children most value being given a demonstration of drawing as support for their own drawing. Drawing with your child or collaborating on a shared drawing may provide them with inspiration.

Creating geometrical designs and patterns is often promoted as an effective means of developing children’s drawing skill, fine motor control and hand-eye coordination.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

Art and mental health – how creative outlets expose stigma and give a voice to the unsaid

Why are we attracted to some art but not others?

Doodling can be lots of fun, too, and has been linked with children’s increased creativity and imagination and learning. What’s more, doodling has been found to improve recall in adults who listened to a monotonous phone message. You could set your child an example and doodle together.

You can also introduce your child to a range of drawing styles. Children may be inspired by a particular artistic style, such as manga, and this may provide them with an opportunity to develop their drawing skill and make sense of the world around them. Perhaps borrow some comic books from the library to inspire them. You might even want to get involved – and learn to draw in a different way together. DM168

First published by The Conversation.

Richard Jolley is an associate professor of developmental psychology and Sarah Rose a senior lecturer in psychology and child development at Staffordshire University in England.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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