In many ways, scribbling is the perfect toddler activity. There's nothing children this age yearn for more than to accomplish something on their own, so you probably won't have to encourage your child's artistic endeavors -- though you may have to discourage her from using the walls as a canvas. Another favorite toddler and preschool pastime is imitating the people around them. Children see grownups and older siblings write, and that makes it enticing, explains William Teale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
However, when a young toddler puts crayon to paper, her purpose is not to create letters, numbers, or pictures of her favorite toy. She's conducting experiments in cause and effect and imitation. It's not until a child nears her third birthday that she starts to grasp the symbolic purpose of writing -- that drawn and written marks can stand for objects or words. This is called symbolic knowledge and it adds a new twist to drawing and writing, says Acredolo. A child's marks become symbols when she shows you that they represent something -- for example, when she points to her scribbles and says "That's me!" or "That's an A!" Helping your child grasp symbolic knowledge is simple, and it's something you do anyway. Reading books together and pointing out letters, numbers, animals, and people helps kids link meaning to drawings and words.
So how does your child go from surrealist scribbles to realistic renderings of her family and friends? Experts say that most children's scribbles follow a predictable pattern; not surprisingly, they begin as random marks and increasingly resemble actual objects or printed words once the child has symbolic knowledge and her hand muscles strengthen. For example, at 2 a child may make long wavy lines to convey printed words. If she wants to draw a person dancing, she may draw a series of squiggles that indicate movement.
Around the age of 3, everything changes. Now your child may create separate shapes on paper that resemble the alphabet and string them together to represent words. The dancers transform from abstract lines into heads and bodies with tutus, because now your child has the hand strength and coordination to create shapes. Don't be surprised if you have some initial trouble interpreting your toddler's creations. Many children create picture or word scribbles interchangeably, or even include both in the same piece of work.