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The Journey from Scribbles to the Written Word

Look into the kitchen of any house with kids and you're bound to see a refrigerator covered in papers teeming with the colorful scribbles and squiggles of the household's littlest Picasso. Indeed, few parents will contest the look of joy that comes over a child's face when he is offered a crayon and a blank piece of paper. What you may not realize is that scribbling and drawing are not only fun for your kids, but they're the result of a number of cognitive and motor milestones coming together. What's more, by understanding what scribbling and drawing reveal, you can help your child along the path toward reading, writing, and artistic creativity.

As soon as a baby can grasp a pencil and wave his hands around -- by about 6 months -- he has the ability to make marks. But there's a big difference between a random squiggle on the kitchen wall and a concerted effort to scribble. In order for your future scribe to truly scribble and draw, several developmental issues must come into play simultaneously.

First, he needs the mutual dexterity to grasp a crayon or maker. Second, he needs the hand-eye coordination to put pen to paper. Fortunately, there are lots of activities in a baby's regular routine that help shape these skills. All the manipulating of objects that your baby does, including picking up playthings or putting food in his mouth, prepares his muscles for scribbling, says Nancy Balaban, a professor at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York City. And, finally, babies need to understand cause and effect to appreciate the fact that when they manipulate a marker in a certain way, they get a squiggle. Most kids get this concept at about 6 or 7 months of age. Once a baby understands peekaboo, he begins to understand cause and effect, says Linda Acredelo, PhD, coauthor of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love (Bantam). But even though your child acquires these skills in babyhood, the milestones won't dovetail until 18 months to 2 years.

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.

As you may have guessed, scribbling and drawing provide far more than a quiet pastime on a rainy day. It helps children develop an understanding of how to communicate and express themselves, says Kathy Barclay, a professor of reading and early childhood development at Western Illinois State University in Macomb. Scribbling relates to writing the exact same way that crawling relates to walking.

There's proof that scribbling helps children learn to read as well. One of the most powerful vehicles that can help a 4- or 5-year-old become literate is early writing experience. Drawing, on the other hand, helps children express themselves emotionally and creatively, expressing their feelings and fears.

Since scribbling and drawing have so many benefits, experts advise doing everything you can do to encourage future Hemingways and Michelangelos to practice their craft. Here's how:

  • Create scribbling stations. Keep markers, crayons, pencils, and paper in places around your home that offer lots of light and flat surfaces to work on.
  • Offer a choice of materials. Some children prefer bright marker strokes to the subtle shading of crayons, and some find "chubby" crayons or pencils easier to manage. Be sure that all of the materials are safe for young children -- they're not averse to scribbling all over themselves or putting crayons and markers in their mouth.
  • Don't curb your enthusiasm. A great way to keep your child writing and drawing is to show how much you like her work. Praise her efforts frequently, and show her you care by hanging her creations on your fridge or in her room. You can also ask her to "read" you what she's written, or write a story together.
  • Make sure your child sees you writing. Let your child watch you write notes, make out checks, create shopping lists, and doodle. He'll be more likely to write if he knows that you think it's important.

But chances are you won't have to do much to get your child on the path to writing and drawing. The magical colors of the Crayola box are a temptation few kids can resist.

Try these project ideas to encourage drawing in your toddler or preschooler.

  • Buy order pads and play restaurant. Let your child be the server.
  • Encourage your child to create a menu when guests come for dinner.
  • Buy matching journals for you and your child, and set aside time to write or draw in them together.
  • Keep a bag of markers and colored paper to use when you're waiting in line at a restaurant or the doctor's office.
  • Let your child finger paint in the bathtub with shaving cream.
  • Make lists with your child -- of errands, items to buy, etc. Let her scribble ideas on your list and encourage her to write her own lists too.
  • Turn the playroom into a mailroom. You and your child can "address" envelopes, stuff them with drawings, and make deliveries to family members.
  • Help your child mail something he's written to a relative -- and make sure he gets a return letter!
  • Help your child draw a family portrait.
  • Create handmade greeting cards together and copy them at your local copy shop.

Copyright © 2003 AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.