How to Teach Any Child to Draw
Imagine putting your 6-year-old out on a soccer field and expecting them to score a goal when they'd never practiced dribbling before. Or handing them a musical instrument and waiting for them to bust out one of Mozart's sonatas, only they hadn't been taught actual notes. You wouldn't do it, right? And if you did, they'd probably hate it (and possibly you too) and never want to play again. When it comes to drawing or painting in the early grades, students are often told to "express their creativity" rather than being instructed in any systematic way. The problem with that method: "Kids who haven't learned core art skills tend to grow dissatisfied with their drawings, decide art isn't for them, and quit," says Bette Fetter, a former illustrator working in early-childhood education who founded Young Rembrandts, nationwide drawing classes for kids ages 3 to 12. Have you ever heard a kid say, "I can't draw" or "I'm just not good at art"?
Unfortunately, the number of students receiving arts education has shrunk. "When education budgets get cut, the arts programs are first on the chopping block because they're not seen as valuable," says Fetter. A federal government report found that schools with a higher percentage of minority students were more likely to report cuts in time spent on the arts. "When kids do have art, they're lucky if it's 30 minutes once a week," Fetter says. "They might go to the art room, or maybe an art teacher travels to them because there's no dedicated classroom. "
It's a shortsighted approach because research shows teaching strategies that include the visual and performing arts improve memory for content in subjects like math and science. If we think of art as a superpower for kids, we need to do what we can to give them those wings.
Drawing Helps With Math and More
In art, everything starts with a drawing. "Every painting, every sculpture, every watercolor, began with an idea drawn on paper," Fetter says. "We need to know those core skills in order to progress and keep creating art." It's like anything else we're taught—you need the building blocks to, well, build on. "Learning to draw is like learning to read or do multiplication tables," says Janet Hartman, an artist who taught for 30 years at Roland Park Country School, in Baltimore.
That's not to say free-form creative expression (i.e., "Here's a piece of paper, draw whatever you want!") isn't fun and worthy too. But it's important to start at the beginning. "All the arts are areas for self-expression but often need direction. Art, like the other disciplines, has ordered steps. If you learn to draw and are taught about color and design, you can take what you've absorbed and use the parts you want to create your own masterpiece, but you cannot do that if you haven't mastered the basics," Hartman says.
Learning to draw and developing "visual literacy" (the ability to interpret and think critically about visual images) also has broader benefits that help kids succeed academically. That's because the majority of children are visual learners. "They learn by seeing things, so drawing is their language," Fetter says. "It's their native tongue, and it needs to be developed, because knowing how to draw is a tool that will serve them well their whole life." They use it across subjects; there's drawing in math (cube trains, anyone?), in science (hello, double helix), in social studies (maps!). And that's a very good thing: Incorporating the arts into the curriculum has shown to be a significant factor in improving academic outcomes, from motivation for learning to thinking skills to retention of learned content.
Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D., professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, directs the Neuro-Education Initiative, which studies how children retain what they learn in school. "A lot of the information we teach using traditional instruction doesn't stick, but when arts are integrated into the curriculum, learning becomes more visual, helping children remember the information better," she says. Dr. Hardiman's research found that the arts impact the kids who need them the most. "When we looked at science lessons, for example, we found that the increase in retention was especially strong for students at the lower levels of reading achievement," Dr. Hardiman says.
Of course, the skills have benefits far beyond improving our kids' grades. Learning to hold a pencil helps with fine motor and coordination skills, as does coloring between the lines. Art boosts a child's imagination, allowing them to dream and think (and create) big. It's also a great way to help them express how they feel and build confidence—or even find "their thing." Scarlet Carey, an eighth-grader in Greenlawn, New York, has been drawing since before she can remember, and people notice. "It makes me feel really good when other kids see my art hanging in the school and tell me I'm a good artist," she says. "And I love making art for family members for their birthday and seeing how much they love it."
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Every individual has strengths that they gravitate toward, and giving children an intro to art simply broadens their options. "If math is not your thing, but you realize that drawing in perspective is actually math and that you're good at that, it can change your entire attitude toward both subjects and yourself," Hartman says. "And maybe you aren't an athlete or a singer, but you can design the set for the school play."
Start With Lines, Shapes, Colors
The most important thing you can do is make time—and space—for art in your home. In childhood, "pencils are more important than crayons or markers," Fetter says. So have plenty of those on hand along with basic art supplies. Designate an area where your kids can come and create undisturbed, and don't obsess about keeping it clean and tidy after every session. (Hint: Make this area out of sight if you can.)
At Young Rembrandts, kids learn step-by-step how to draw things like butterflies, ice-cream cones, or even horses. This goes against the "just let kids express their creativity" message we often hear in preschools; instead, it's about learning how-to techniques as an empowering tool for budding artists. "Children develop on different timetables, but I believe line, shape, and color are the best building blocks to start with," Hartman says. If you have the confidence to show your kid how to put together lines that make shapes to create, say, a dog or a cat, that will help them see how it works. Just aim for a healthy balance between unstructured drawing time and your instruction.
"You can spend time doing fundamentals, but in a sneaky way so they don't feel as if they're being taught," adds Jessica Howard, a veteran art teacher and owner of Second Floor Studio, in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she hosts classes for young kids. "Teach them shapes, and help them understand that shapes make everything. Demonstrate what a circle looks like, and make little ones, big ones, and then say, 'Oh, look, you can make it into a sun, you can make it into a snowman, you can make it into a flower—let's see what we can add!'
"Having them draw from life is key. "Put something down in front of them—like a vase with flowers—and say, 'Draw what you see,'" says Howard, herself a working artist at Jessica Howard Ceramics and Art. "Help them break it into sections and use their eyes to find the different lines and shapes." A house, for example, is made up of a square and then a triangle for the roof and a rectangle for the door. Add some more squares for windows and have some fun with the landscaping! "You want them to be able to draw by looking at something for reference to give them a foundation, but also let them be free to make their own decisions when it comes to art," Howard says. (If they want to learn to draw a bus or an ice-cream cone or a unicorn, print out a picture of those things and have them draw what they see). Another trick Howard uses with her classes: playing classical music. "It helps the kids stay calm and focused," she says.
What can you do to enhance the experience? Help them notice proportion, balance, and perspective. "Really looking at what they're drawing trains them to analyze, to consider various options, to think things through. That's visual literacy, and the same observation skills that help you draw a cat help you spell cat," Fetter says. Incorporate guided instruction when you can. Sign them up for art classes (look for after-school programs, free classes at your local library, even summer camps), or find instructional videos online. Young Rembrandts has a series of how-to clips on YouTube (their "How to Draw a Butterfly" has more than 11 million views).
Just try not to evaluate your child's art—you'd be surprised by how much we do it without realizing. "Rather than saying things like 'I like it' or 'It's pretty,' talk about the art itself," Fetter says. "Mention the things you see: 'That orange really pops next to that blue' or 'Your marker lines are very straight!' " Even better: Ask them to tell you about their drawings. "You'll be amazed at the story they tell about just one drawing," Fetter says. Then hang that zombie alligator ballerina up. "When a student feels successful in an area, they are usually eager to continue," Hartman says. "Good teachers know how to encourage students by displaying their artwork." And nothing says success to a little kid like seeing their mini Cézanne tacked up on your family bulletin board. If your kid is churning out drawings at a rapid clip and you want to keep some of your walls for non-stick-figure art, have them pick three they'd like to hang and rotate them out periodically.
Remember to keep art light and fun. Wanting to make marks on a page is a natural, universal drive. It's for everybody, and it should be encouraged. "An interest in art is innate, but skill is not," says Fetter. "It's not either you have it or you don't. It's something you can absolutely teach." And we must.
Create an At-Home Art Studio
The name of the game is accessibility, so have this stuff out and ready to be used. Buy the best quality you can.
- Brown or white craft paper. "The bigger the better when they're little in terms of paper size," Jessica Howard says. "You want them to exercise their arms and really get into it." Opt for paper that's at least 18 by 24 inches.
- Ticonderoga pencils and a sharpener
- Charcoal pencils and an eraser
- Sakura Cray-Pas. They're creamy, lush, and beautiful.
- Liquid watercolors and heavy-weight watercolor paper. Start with a pencil drawing, and use watercolors to finish.
- Tempera paints and good brushes
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2021 issue as "Every Kid Can Learn to Draw." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here