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Doodle Dandy

“When you give Clara a crayon, does she scribble?” Our pediatrician’s question hung in the air for a moment. I stammered; then, figuring a single scribble was worth a thousand words, I held up my child’s brand-new shoes. The day before, Clara had found a pen and covered the heels with exuberant scrawls. Her doctor smiled. “Good!” he said.

Good? Really? I’d come to my daughter’s 15-month checkup prepared to answer all sorts of questions about her eating and sleeping habits and whether she could walk or say “mama” and “dada” yet. Clara’s emergent scribbling seemed more like mischief than a milestone. When I inquired about his interest in my child as a budding artist, our pediatrician replied vaguely, “Oh, it’s just something we like to know.” Obviously, I’d need to dig around to get a clearer picture on scribbles.

Basic Instinct

A tot’s first crayon strokes are a developmental triumph, says Susan Striker, an art teacher and author of Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation of Art (Owl Books, 2001). “Children have a powerful instinct to scribble, just as they have a powerful instinct to walk. Both activities emerge at the same time and signify enormous growth and maturity,” Striker says. Yet, lamentably, they’re seldom equally hailed. “When a child scribbles for the first time, it’s often on something he’s not supposed to mess up, like a wall, and his parents may yell, ‘Don’t do that!’ ”

And that’s too bad, because there’s more to scribbling than meets the eye. The mere act of using a crayon demonstrates newly acquired finger and wrist dexterity, a good pincer grasp, and improving hand-eye coordination, says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, in New York. It’s also a sign of an increasingly sophisticated mind. As your toddler gets older, scribbling becomes a form of symbolism: “Your child will want to express something that’s inside her head,” Dr. Honig explains.

Something like what? I wonder. A picture? A word? A message? Was Clara secretly asking me to stop feeding her spinach? Dr. Honig is the first to admit it’s impossible to tell: “Once your child starts to talk, he may describe what he’s drawing. Until then, only he knows.”

First Impressions

If your child has access to crayons or markers, she’ll probably start scribbling at 10 to 12 months of age. Most babies and toddlers begin with dots, and if they’re drawing on paper, they may press the crayon so hard it pokes right through. “Children enjoy the sensory feedback. When they make that impression, they feel powerful, which to them is wonderful,” Dr. Honig says.

Of course, you’ll feel less than wonderful if your toddler makes his mark on his best pair of pants or your great-grandmother’s hope chest (see “Stain, Stain, Go Away,” left, for cleaning tips). So provide him with the proper supplies: a wide, sturdy, unwrapped crayon (otherwise he may pull off the wrapper and choke on it) and lots of heavy drawing paper. “Those parents who don’t give their children safe opportunities for scribbling are the ones who end up with graffiti all over the house,” Striker warns. If you buy your child a magnetic drawing board or washable markers, closely supervise art time to make sure he doesn’t put small pieces in his mouth.

The Write Start

Over the course of your child’s next year, dots will be supplemented by sprawling, wavy lines that often trail off the paper’s edge. “To draw a line with a deliberate start and finish takes a lot of intellectual and neurological work,” Dr. Honig says. “Some kids can do it by the time they’re 2, but most can’t. Very often, though, a toddler can scribble a line back and forth.” Intricate loops and shapes typically don’t emerge until age 3 or later.

As random as your toddler’s doodles may seem, the shapes within them actually form the basis of every alphabet in the world, Striker adds. (What is an A, after all, except two diagonal lines and a horizontal one?) For this reason, scribbling is an important precursor to literacy. Give your toddler plenty of room to spread out as she scrawls. “At first, your child really moves all her parts, including her shoulders, back, and butt,” Striker says. “It’s like she needs to program her whole body to learn how to use a crayon.”

With her own set of art supplies, Clara now makes me mini masterpieces every day. Will she be the next Picasso? I really can’t say. But her latest pair of shoes has remained clean, and she’s off to a colorful start.