Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

The Child’s Drawing


Reimche, Donna


Interest in children’s drawings is a fairly recent occurrence, of the last thirty or forty years. And yet, children have always drawn, whether in sand or in mud, on wood or on stone, but prior to modern times, few people cherished and preserved works by children.


Today, drawings by children are used to study attitudes they have, how competent and coordinated they are with their hands, or how they see themselves or others. Asking a child to draw her or his parents or another child has become one of a number of ways to appraise growth, development, or psychological status (Harris, 1963).


Psychologists, educators, and parents are interested in stages of development in children. We are told by theorists that most children at a given age level produce drawings having particular characteristics: at age two, a child is usually at the scribbling stage; at age four, she will normally begin to make representational drawings; as a pre-adolescent, she should be able to master principles of perspective. However, do these interests not present a limited view of the drawing experience for children? Do they allow a sense of the drawing experience as it is lived by children? What is it like to draw? What does the experience of drawing mean for the child?


As a youngster, it seems that I was always drawing, whether with a stick in the dirt, a finger on a steamed window pane, or a finger nail on the condensation that had turned to ice. And later, I eagerly responded to a pencil and a pad of drawing paper. The drawing experience provided me with many hours of exploring, dreaming, and relaxing. As an art teacher, I have met children who share that same pleasure, but it is also not unusual to watch grimaces form on faces when faced with the prospect of another drawing class and to hear exclamations of “I can’t draw!” or “I don’t know what to draw!”


Drawing: In School

Who is man, the artist?… He is the unspoiled core of every man, before he is choked by schooling, training, conditioning, until the artist-within shrivels up and is forgotten. (Frank, 1973, p. x)

Even though the child spends but one quarter of her day in school, many of her experiences in drawing occur there. Thus, to come to a whole understanding of her experiences, we need to observe the child situated in the school.


In the grade one group, the children’s faces are filled with eager anticipation of the next lesson-drawing in art class. Bodies cannot be still but are stirred with excitement while waiting for the teacher to say, “Okay. Now you can line up and go to the art room.” Most children, being children, would, if permitted, race to the art room in a burst of energy, but some stragglers stay behind for that drink of water, to tie that loose shoe lace, to find that lost crayon.


In a room filled with quiet chatter and laughter, each finds a place to sit and a place to put down the box of crayons, and in the placing of that box, ownership of that spot is confirmed. The teacher carefully distributes but one sheet of paper to each child. While the lesson is directed at allowing the children greater freedom to explore the paper as far as their imaginations will permit, she instructs each child to place the sheet before him or her “the long way.”

And as we watch, the child takes that crayon in hand, and carefully, or less so, places that first mark on the sheet. That mark may awaken an echo within her to journey on familiar paths or unchartered ones. Or, not unlikely, a “dead end” is met, and the whiteness, once pregnant with possibilities, becomes a futureless blackness, a dead silence.


The child then leans her body against the back of the chair and with a purposefulness, picks up that sheet and bunches it with two hands, discards it and requests another. The teacher, who holds not only thoughts of the child but also of budget concerns, allows another sheet but with the warning that it is the last. Not surprisingly, children learn early to turn that unwanted side over and begin on the other, trying to ignore the lines that are striving to show through.


Still early into the period, a small hand goes up, and the child announces, “I’m done.” The teacher moves to the child to “check” the work, where only a small portion of the paper has been used. She suggests to the child things that could be included, and the child, understanding that the teacher “knows best” or wishing to please, continues to add this and that and one more until the entire sheet is filled. But what of the child and her sense of completion, her knowledge of when she is finished? What do teachers see when they look at the clock with thirty minutes still left in the class?


For most children, drawing in school is integrated with other subjects or is done during the art period which is often scheduled for Friday afternoons. Children, on Friday afternoons in school, are restless and have difficulty concentrating, teachers say, thus, reading, mathematics, spelling, social studies… are not good choices. During art period, children are less restricted they have greater freedom to move their bodies and are allowed to “whisper” or even talk quietly to each other. How is the experience of drawing in art class perceived that allows teachers to encourage such? Is there the assumption that language arts and spelling and math require the clearness and freshness of mind best found in the morning? Does drawing not, therefore, require a fresh mind? And yet, a Japanese calligraphy artist speaks of working early in the morning when the mind is clear. Later in the day, the mind become cluttered with all that was done and all that must be done, all the things that distract one’s thoughts. Or, do teachers somehow recognize a playfulness within the drawing experience that is not evident or accepted in other classes?


While all of what happens in school in the name of drawing is an experience in drawing, it may not necessarily capture the essence of the drawing experience for children. So we may venture to say that in many ways drawing in our schools has become institutionalized such that it is no longer “drawing” but a contrived experience. Thus, the experience of drawing in schools is greeted by children as just one more hurdle they must jump. But for some children in schools and for drawers who draw for their own pleasure, there is a deeper sense of what it means to draw. Suddenly, drawing, which does not have to be done for a project, has a life of its own.


Drawing: Onto the World

To watch a child deeply engrossed in her drawing, we observe the sounds and motions she unwittingly makes as she draws. The child makes the sounds of animals “talking,” of engines roaring, of monsters growling, of space invaders attacking. She jumps and squirms in the action that absorbs her. As the child draws, the drawing draws the child into a world of possibilities: to form a face, to form a hand, or to fancy an emerging significance until the world is “drawn” as she experiences it. Life calls the child to draw, and her hand becomes, not simply part of the body, but the expression and continuation of a thought which must be captured and conveyed.


Lana is a bright six-year-old whose laughter is peals of joy. As she draws, her chair can no longer hold her. She slips off unknowingly and moves her whole body closer to the paper, her nose but an inch from its surface. Her face becomes a kaleidoscope of expressions: her lips scrunched up one moment, then open in wonder the next. From her mouth issues forth an incomprehensible but appealing arrangement of sounds: a singsong-like humming, a high pitch, a low one; a line that she whips on her paper is expressed in sound. What Lana is drawing has come to life. She is living the experience as it comes out the end of her pencil. Picasso said that, “When you step into the picture, you leave (the world) behind you. You live in the world-the reality, space, and time of the picture” (Flannery, 1980, p. 35).


The child’s experience of drawing is not only of the classroom or of pencil/paper. The world beckons the child and invites him to play.

We lived on the farm when I was young. There was a long dirt road leading to our place. I can remember rain, and, after the rain stopped and the sun had dried everything, going outside. If I was lucky, no one had driven on the road, so where the water had once been, I’d find a smooth surface of silt. I’d find a stick it had to be fairly thin but strong. And then I would guide my stick, breaking through the dirt, and create lines and shapes that sometimes were recognizable, up and down the track. If I didn’t like what emerged, I would quickly scratch it out with the stick and instantly start again. I had the whole road . [1]

The mode of being-in-the-world that is characteristic of childhood is such that the child lives in a world that invites him to explore, to seek, to search. Vandenberg (1971, pp. 60-63) speaks of authentical-ness and direct-ness in the child’s world. The child is authentically there in the world and lives directly into the world. By living directly into the world, the child allows things to disclose themselves to him. In this disclosure, things invite him to play. Thus, a window is no longer a wall that one sees through, a transparent wall that keeps the cold wind out and the warm air in, or a piece of glass that mother polishes free of fingerprints. The window simply is, and because it is there, the child is drawn to its alluring surface. In its presence, it invites the child to play. A steamed window invites her to reach out with her finger and disrupt the misted surface as it draws across. Two lips gently kiss the pane and imprint multiple expressions on it. And, as if to prove the feasibility of man’s creations, the child quickly draws her full hand across and obliterates all.


The child is both the draw-er and the draw-ee. As the draw-ee, she is drawn into the world. Life beckons the child to play in the world. But in so doing, she is the draw-er in that she draws the world closer to herself. In this close communion with the world, things appear in their being, and may fill a child with wonder.

A puddle before me remains from heavy showers yesterday. I watch worm-paths under the surface of the water and the fact that they have shadows intrigues me. I wonder if the paths are alive, I think I somehow understand the paths are also part of the worm’s life, and now the dancing, curling worm in the water makes delicate clouds that reflect more sunlight when my thoughts return, I wish to do something in the puddle, but not too much…. I mean I want to play in that world, not change it too much-I’d like to join that world of light and silence, and slow water reflections. I get a stick, the end not to big, and first touch the surface ripples.

The child reaches out to life as life draws the child to itself.


The inviting and attracting world beckons the child and invites her to touch. The child touches the world and through the touching, remains in touch with things. The finger pulled across the dusty surface of the coffee table lets her know the quality of the dust, the way it rubs between her thumb and finger, the way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it rubs off on her clothing. In this way, drawing becomes the way for the young child to experience the surfaces, the outwardness, of her world. In the learning of surfaces, she comes to know how one is different from another.


Where is the place to draw? When is the time to draw in the child’s world? There is the skating rink. How great the pleasure to be the first on freshly-made ice. To feel those edges cut cleanly through. To turn and see clear imprints left behind. It is morning. Hunger forgotten, the fascination is with the honey flowing over the edges of the spoon to make a spiral pattern on the breakfast toast. For the child, the place-to-draw is where things take her and the time-to-draw is when things take her.


While drawing is the action, the experiencing, it is also that which is left behind after the experience. When the finger moves across the surface, be it wood, earth, paper, or whatever, a record of the movement stays behind. For the child, the joy is in the experience of doing and, perhaps, of sharing the-thing-completed with someone.


Drawing: The Child Within Us

Children are always trying to explore, but it seems adults are always trying to stop them. If a baby smears food on her face for the sheer pleasure of feeling, she is chastised for making a mess. If a child responds to a fence’s invitation to draw a stick across its pickets, she is told she is disturbing others or damaging property. One kindergarten teacher spoke of parents who would never let their children have crayons because they wrote with them on the walls, or parents who disallowed scissors for fear their children would injure themselves.


We, educators and parents, are caught in a paradox: we spend time and energy telling children not to do what we value and what comes naturally to them-being children. As adults we too often lose touch with the things of the world in our inclination to accommodate ourselves to the social conventions of the cultural world. And yet, some of us often wistfully wish to rejoin the carefree, spontaneous time of childhood, and at some time in our lives, discard that adult persona, even if only momentarily. Then we drop on that blanket of snow and make an angel in its softness. Or, we charge gleefully on our bikes through a puddle, and turning our heads with pleasure, look to see the trail behind, as we rejoice in a stolen moment. Or, we protest that we cannot draw but take pleasure in the playful doodling of our pen, somewhere in a phone book, or a note pad, or in the margin of a written page.


It was Picasso who said,

Once I drew like Raphael,
but it has taken me a whole lifetime
to learn to draw like children. (Picasso, 1980,p. 141)




Flannery, M. (1980, Fall). Research methods in phenomenological aesthetics. Review of Research in Visul Arts Education, 12, 35.

Frank, F. (1973). The Zen of seeing. New York: Random House.

Harris, D. B. (1963). Children’s drawings as measures of intellectual maturity. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Picasso, P. (1980). In H. Gardner (Ed.), Artful scribbles. New York: Basic Books.

Vandenberg, D. (1971). Being and education. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.



1. These and subsequent quotes are personal reflections on past experiences shared by friends.