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Teaching Kids to Love Drawing

Tips for getting your kids to access their artistic side

An artist all my life, I had assumed that my passion for making a happy mess would lead to many hours of doing the same with my kids. No such luck.

Sure, the baby and toddler years were a piece of cake. Both kids started out curious and uninhibited and bold: Give them a crayon and they would draw forever. But when Freddy turned 3 (he's now 9), he began to make it clear he would rather be a horse cantering around the living room than draw one. He'd humor his pesky mother by dashing off a few strokes ("A stallion, Mom, running away!") before bucking headlong onto the couch.

Clara, on the other hand, continued to take to the art table, narrating her work like a chatty cartographer — a fiery red tangle of lines was the wind blowing her hair, the little black dot was the spot where she was standing when it stopped. But now, at 6, she's become deeply disappointed with the entire process. "Mommy," the baleful whine begins, "will you make a queen crown for me?" Then come the tears, and our easy play unravels into dramatic frustration.

What can I do to set the stage — or the kitchen table — for my kids to have a positive experience making art, now and for life? I've experimented a little. I've read a lot. And I've spoken with a few wise people: Ursula Kolbe, an Australian teacher, artist, and writer whose books about children and art I love; Laura Seftel, an art therapist who lectures across the country; and Cathy Topal, an instructor in visual arts education at Smith College.

From all of the information I've gathered, a few basic tenets have merged, which I'm starting to put to use with my kids.

1. Set Up for Success

Mood and preparation are everything. Provide your kids with a dedicated space, unhurried time, and good materials (just a few at a time, so you don't overwhelm them with choices).

Forget those cheapo anemic watercolor sets with the spindly brushes, which are just frustrating for kids. Instead buy (at a good art store, so you don't end up with counterfeit dreck) some tempera paints, nontoxic water-based felt-tip pens, oil pastels, and crayons. Older kids may work well with chalk, and fine felt-tip pens will let them be more precise in their drawing.

Continue to create inviting opportunities even if your child doesn't seem interested, in the same way you might offer new foods again and again until he bites.

2. Give Them a Jump Start

It's not enough to plop some markers on the table in front of your child and go off to make phone calls. Hang around. Offer suggestions for how to begin. (This is not the same as telling her what to make.) Place objects on the tabletop and invite her to draw from observation. Give her a mirror so she can do a self-portrait. Carve stamps from erasers or sponges so she can make prints (abstract shapes are best, so as not to limit creativity). Call on her current fascinations: worms, constitutional law, space travel. Maybe all she needs is a launching pad.

3. Use Your Words ... a Little

Your child is working away, and you feel an encouraging word coming on. Instead of the usual dead-end "Oh, that's beautiful; what is it?" try asking about specifics you see: "I notice a lot of red lines," or "You're really working hard making those circles." Or just keep watching. "Wait and see if a child wants a comment at all," says Kolbe. "Your interested face says more than words can ever say."

4. Keep Your Hands Off

Drawing for your child really doesn't do him any favors. It just sets up unrealistic goals — he'll want to do it just like you did. With a very young child, shift his focus away from you and onto his work: Talk texture, color, etc. If you're working with a child 3-ish or older, explain how to break down the thing he's drawing into recognizable shapes and lines. What is a queen's crown, after all, but triangles and a circle?

5. Don't Read Into It

A young child's dense black shapes don't necessarily indicate she's depressed. And she's not destined for prison just because she tears holes in her paper. Likewise, the fact that she draws flowers doesn't guarantee she'll want to join the Peace Corps. With younger children (hey, even with adults), meaning can change from one minute to the next. And as the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Artist in Residence: The Early Years

There's no set schedule for human development. Some of us can walk and chew gum when we're 4. Some of us never can. Still, we found this progression of childhood art motifs in classic research by Rhoda Kellogg, Viktor Lowenfeld, and W. Lambert Brittain to be quite interesting. (Please take those age ranges with a heap of salt.)

And even before children begin making art with pencils, crayons, and the like, they are creating artwork: A swipe of pudding on the high chair, a pudgy hand raking the sand, a stick scraping through the dirt, it all says, "I can make something appear out of nowhere."

Random Scribbles, 12 to 30 months
As soon as they learn to hold a pen and make marks on paper, kids are likely to experience "kinesthetic enjoyment," the pleasure of moving around and making marks. Their marks are typically random and disordered, made with the whole hand and arm, and are likely to extend off the paper. Or off the wall.

Controlled Scribbles, 30 months to 3 years
Now a child begins to use wrist motions, control her marks, make them smaller, and keep them mostly on the paper. Or on the wall.

Named Scribbles, 3 to 4 1/2 years
Kids start to hold crayons with their fingers rather than their fists, make a variety of lines and shapes, and tell you what they are. Kids are also apt to "narrate," announcing as they draw that, say, a squiggle is actually Aunt Kate dancing with Uncle Al. It's a step toward connecting pictures and things.

Preschematic, 4 1/2 to 7 years
Squiggles, circles, and spirals start to develop into symbols that represent things, as well as self-portraits. These new figures, resembling tadpoles and such, may not be in proportion or even strike you as actual objects, but kids are learning that their pictures say something to others, and to value their product.

Schematic, 7 to 9 years
Those symbols start to appear within a larger framework, or schema. Kids might now draw themselves and their family on a baseline, and include the sky. Their colors get more realistic, but still don't expect to be able to recognize who's Aunt Kate and who's Uncle Al.

A Good Read

It's Not a Bird Yet: The Drama of Drawing, by Ursula Kolbe, blends the theoretical — how children observe the world, how they draw based on what they're seeing, and how parents can participate in that — with great practical tips on how to create a studio for kids. (Peppinot Press)

Fun Sort-of Fact

Picasso allegedly said that it took him a few years to learn how to draw like Raphael, but a lifetime to draw like a child.

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