Enriching Language in the Home/School Curriculum

Please read the following from the Drawing Network and give some
thought to how it might relate to your children,
the children of your friends, neighbours, and community, indeed,
children the world over!

The basic message comes in three parts:

1) Children are born with a propensity to draw from approximately age-two. They have their own graphic language which begins with random scribbles, evolves into crude geometric forms, moves on to simple representations and eventually to complex story-telling pictures. There is no need to teach children to draw; there is, however, a need to nurture its growth.

2) As children use it, drawing is a language, an un-coded medium for articulating, expressing, and communicating subtle and complex perceptions, thoughts and feelings. This is a tremendous advantage for children who need a spontaneous language for making sense of the experiences of 'growing up' while simultaneously learning the codes of literacy.

3) Drawing is a significant but sadly underused aid for acquiring literacy and more than other arts media it parallels literacy’s broad structures. Schemata - the child's representations of persons, things, places and situations - are the equivalent of nouns and collectively, vocabulary. For example, the combined head/ body circle with extended lines for arms and legs is the child’s 'word' or 'phrase' for the human form. There is an important difference in the two languages: words are a standardized social code; schemata are uncoded personal inventions that don’t need to be learned.

Organizing schemata in the process of making story-telling pictures is roughly equivalent to the syntax of words. Theory aside, in practice, the 'daily draw' engages children in meaningful conversations with an adult care-giver, a powerful way to expand both vocabulary and syntax.

There it is in a nutshell: And yet spontaneous drawing is relatively neglected in the home/school curriculum and literacy receives almost all the attention.

Many children never get to draw except superficially, others are encouraged to draw but are left on their own without the care and attention of adults. Only a small minority get daily and systematic help in the form of conversations with adults about themes before the drawing begins, and acknowledgment, appreciation, and kindly evaluation when the drawing is finished. Without nurturing, this incredible gift 'withers on the vine'. On the other hand, when drawing is nurtured the benefits flow: intellectual development, mental health, mental healing, more effective learning, empathy for others and bonding with caring adults.


The practice we promote was given the name 'the daily draw' by a class of enthusiastic grade four children. A brief description follows, but first an important point: the caring adult does not have to be a professional teacher or, if a teacher, a specialist in art education to nurture drawing-as-language in the home/school curriculum.

WHY THE NEED FOR A CARING ADULT?: When children are left on their own they soon run out of ideas or fall back on familiar stereotypes. Every language has its optimum learning environment. Using spoken words effectively is learned from unconscious imitation, informal correction, and frequent use. Literacy requires years of formal and informal teaching and learning. Drawing is ideally nurtured as a daily activity with a parent or teacher in attendance to help the child decide on a theme. It is not intended for instruction but should be an occasion for sharing ideas, discussing themes, building excitement for a drawing or series of drawings. In a word, motivation!

To summarize: the adult role is 1) to discuss possible themes 2) to schedule a period of free drawing during which the parent or teacher retires from the scene and 3) to offer feedback and kindly evaluation when the drawing is finished. It is critically important to understand that children have their own graphic language which they 'invent' through daily practice over time. It behooves us as adult care-givers to avoid making comments about 'correctness' or 'making it look more real'. Drawing as children use it is a language partly symbolic and partly representational. It is not helpful to add your own marks to the child's drawing or to draw while the child draws but on a separate sheet. It is entirely counterproductive to offer models for copying or formulas for solving problems, for example, 'balloons' for humans or animals.  These kindly-meant recipes prevent the natural development of the child’s own expressive language which is based on perception, memory, knowledge, feeling, and imagination. All of these mental resources are put at risk when adults go beyond using words to motivate.

* BASIC STRATEGIES FOR AUTHENTIC DRAWING: Children come to the 'daily draw' with varying degrees of confidence. Young children are generally enthusiastic but in our culture it doesn’t take long for the 'I can’t draw' syndrome to appear. (Generally by third grade, primary teachers tell me.) You might be saying, 'If we can’t offer models and formulas, what can we do to help older children gain confidence if they need it?' The following strategies are meant to expand the adult role. Common sense will tell you when and how to use them:

** VARIED THEMES: Offer a wide and appealing range of themes. Divide them into two categories: 1) themes that relate to the child’s familiar experiences in the home, school, and community; 2) themes that are brand new and consciousness-expanding such as stories, poems, songs, television programs, field trips, posed models, still life subjects and so on.

** VISUALIZATION: motivation is usually a word-game: visualization attempts to transform words into graphic symbols through imagination. As part of the motivation, have the drawer “see” elements of the discussion “on the inner screen of the imagination”. You can be more technical with older children: “Visualization is like programming the preconscious much as we program computers. We feed information into our minds through discussion and visualization but it remains invisible until the act of drawing brings it out and we see the results on paper. Visualization is particularly important if the drawing is based on memory and/or imagination. Visualizing how the drawing might be organized on the blank sheet of paper may also be helpful. Keep visualization light and suggestive: it is not necessary to account for every detail. As the drawing gains momentum details will be invented as part of the ongoing creative process.

** GUIDED IMAGERY: This is visualization in action, again, most useful for drawings where there is no visible model. The adult structures a series of visualizations that give shape, meaning, and emotional intensity to a drawing. For example, if the theme is school bullying and the subject is a fight between two children, most young drawers will place the action at a distance because of the perceived challenge of the subject. Through “guided imagery” the presiding adult can bring the drawer closer to the scene of action. “Imagine that you are watching from a tree and the fight is going on just below you. How would this change the drawing?” Guided imagery is particularly useful as a remedial strategy. Using the above situation again, the first drawing might be considered ineffectual, the drawer too far from the action. A second drawing is re-visualized after a brief session using guided imagery.

** A SERIES OF DRAWINGS ON ONE THEME: There is an unfortunate tendency to schedule 'once off' drawings when clearly a series on the same theme - theme and variation, if you like - would be an advantage. Visualization and guided imagery would be useful in the motivational episode leading to the series.

** TAKING TURNS SUGGESTING THEMES: To avoid a too authoritarian atmosphere, establish a contract that places the responsibility for theme on the adult care-giver one day and the child-artist the next. If there seems to be a need for more adult involvement at some point or more freedom for the child, the contract can be altered.

** DRAWING PICTURES IS THE SAME AS TELLING STORIES OR DESCRIBING SITUATIONS, PEOPLE, ANIMALS, AND THINGS: Sometimes a single drawing will contain the entire narrative but older children love telling more involved stories using the comic book format. Think of this as a social studies strategy.

** DRAWING PRESENTED AS A GAME: As a remedial strategy or just for the sheer fun of it, occasionally present the “daily draw” as a game. The goal is to take the pressure off making it look real, to help children who are experiencing the early appearance of the “I can’t draw” syndrome and need help, to encourage the view that drawing is indeed a spontaneous language. Children know that games have rules and rules must be followed. Here are ‘game’ variations:

*** THE CONTINUOUS LINE GAME: After an enriched motivation, the drawing commences. The basic game-rule is that the drawing must be one continuous contour line from beginning to end. A second rule insists that the line is the product of slow empathic touching. No stopping, no lifting, no rough approximations, no speedy generalizations. A not-too-slow-not-too-fast pace is critically important! Try to feel, or imagine that you are feeling, the object you are drawing. This will introduce empathy to the game as empathy is a tactile sensation. A later variation permits lifting the drawing tool to relocate to the starting point of a new contour. This minimizes the ‘clothes line effect’, that is, lines made for no other purpose than to relocate. The game can be played effectively when the subject is a posed model, an imagined incident, or after an analysis of a still-life subject which may be visible while drawing or removed from sight.

*** THE SHUT-EYE GAME: Drawing with your eyes shut sharpens the focus on touching and feeling, that is, on empathy. The above rules apply, but a rule unique to shut-eye drawing is that so long as the drawing tool is moving, the eyes must be closed. Deprived of sight, the drawer’s sense of touch increases.

*** THE DRAWING WITH YOUR OTHER HAND GAME: This too can be a separate game or an extension of the above strategies. The same rules apply: slow pace, empathic touch, continuous performance.

* A REGULAR TIME AND PLACE: Children love to draw once they discover that each drawing is accepted as a personal expression and that there is no ‘correct’ way to represent the world and its myriad parts. And yet it is serious and best organized as a daily activity in a designated time and place. A well-run kindergarten is a good model. It is serious to the extent that acquiring language through practice is serious.

Ideally there is a ‘drawing corner’, a table where paper and drawing tools are always available for additional drawing when the spirit moves. The “daily draw” is a scheduled event, free drawing is optional. A kitchen table or some other flat surface will serve.

* MATERIALS ARE MINIMAL: For paper, a light cartridge or computer paper, clear on both sides or used and clear on one side. A large drawing pad with a firm backing is a good solution, especially for field trips. The best drawing tool is a good quality ballpoint or a fine tipped felt which remove the possibility of erasing.

* THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTOUR LINE: The essential technique for the 'daily draw' is contour line. Contour refers to the edges of forms. It can be explained to children by comparing an egg, which has no contour except its outline to an egg beater which is very complex and has many in-lines or interior contours. One child is reported to have said, 'I just put a line around what I know.' She might have added '...and what I see, feel, imagine and remember.' For the 'daily draw' I would make contour line obligatory. Tone, texture, and colour don’t contribute much to language. Contour line drawings from the 'daily draw' can be developed later in tone, texture and colour in arts and crafts periods and used as imagery for paintings, stitchery, rug hooking, print making and so on. A painting technique which does offer language values is adding  transparent water colour washes to existing contour line drawings.

* ADDING WORDS TO DRAWINGS: Words and the act of drawing are so closely related in the minds of children it seems likely that each drawing is accompanied by an interior monologue. Conversations about theme and finished drawings, the interior monologue which adds to the narrative as the drawing evolves on paper, these are the indirect ways that drawing aids literacy. Aware of the lure of the printed word, children soon find it rewarding to add them to drawings. Adding words, short sentences, full paragraphs, and written compositions on separate sheets are normal activities in the 'daily draw'. In this way the 'daily draw' aids literacy directly. Models for emergent writing are, of course, necessary because literacy is coded.

We have published pamphlets backing up our claims with the evidence children provide in their drawings, as well as  reports from parents and teachers, and our own observations as professionals. We distribute these freely and will send them on request. Be sure to include a mailing address with postal code. Please circulate this pamphlet!


DRAWING ONE: (James, age 2) When young children are given paper and a crayon or a beginners pencil they explore its mark-making possibilities. Scribbling gives kinesthetic pleasure, the kind we feel from moving our bodies rhythmically for some purpose. It may also be a source of satisfaction to discover that marks on a sheet of paper resulted from the artist’s manipulation of materials, an affirmation of 'self'. Indeed scribbling is not to be dismissed lightly. The potential for language occurs when the drawer recognizes a familiar form imbedded in the tangled marks of a scribble. 'Naming the scribble' may occur but the moment is not always noticed by the caring adult. The budding artist typically points to his Mom and says the word thus making the first direct connection between graphic mark and spoken word. Sometimes - so researchers tells us - there is a hard-to-recognize connection to the world of things and events buried in the scribble, i.e. to content. (Of interest: I once knew a nine-year-old with severe literacy problems who acted out entire scenarios through gestural scribbling but only a therapist would have recognized the connection to a specific content, but it was there.) Scribbles have fascinated mature artists throughout the history of art from the paleolithic cave 'meandering serpentines' (which have become part of my own art) to the brush work of Rembrandt, to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack. It may be nothing more than a curiosity, but I find beauty in a child’s initial scribbles and who can say there isn’t an aesthetic response in the mind of the child. Indeed, the Drawing Network conceptualizes children’s mark-making, whether representational or non-representational, as a special language of 'aesthetic energy'.

DRAWING TWO: (Lawrence, age 3) The basic forms for intentional mark-making appear in this non-representational drawing, i.e. lines and shapes. Scribbles have become circular forms with attached lines. (Scribbling may now be used to  fill-in important shapes with tone-texture.) Human representation was not Laurence’s intension but soon this basic configuration will become his first humanoid. (See Janika’s drawing below.) We can also say that compared to his scribbles ‘aesthetic energy’ has become stronger. A basic form is repeated and the smaller one against the larger creates a sense of spacial ambiguity - a sort of tug-of-war between depth and flatness. See if you don’t think this has an appealing abstract quality, an aesthetic quality!

DRAWING THREE: (Lawrence, age 3 plus) From now on forms are made as though playing with building blocks - line and shape again. Story-telling is hinted at and at least one form seems to be representational. If we had been present, we might have heard muttered word-clues referring to content. Here is an example of a monologue overheard by a field researcher (Dr. Eleanor Irvin) as she observed and recorded a severely abused child painting a picture in a stacked series: 'This is a little boy who wets his bed... This is a daddy who spanks the little boy...This is a dragon who eats the daddy up!'

DRAWING FOUR: (Janika, age 3) Double portraits are unusual at this stage of representation and combining human figures with early attempts at printing are even rarer. We see evidence of Janika’s fascination with the printed code, the one her mother refers to when she reads a bedtime story. The human figures - mother and child? - are variations of the head/body combination that is nearly universal in the iconography of childhood. Teeth and hair, however, are unusual. The drawing is charged with strongly expressed feelings but until someone can unravel the words, the specific story must remain a mystery. We can’t even be certain that the letter forms are anything but an overall imitation of what words look like. And yet, a dialogue is suggested: two figures, one large, one small, the drawing divided in two with a patch of print apparently assigned to each. And what is the ambiguous ladder form in the upper right corner? Knowledge informs “aesthetic energy”, but mystery also contributes to its power, as I believe is true of all art. I have looked at this drawing from time to time for some twenty years and it never fails to give me pleasure and astonishment!

DRAWING FIVE: (Eddy, age 7): There are many strategies for nurturing and expanding the child’s interest in letter forms into the severely coded art of writing - in both senses of the word, written letter forms and full-blown literacy.  In this drawing the teacher carried on an encouraging correspondence with Eddy who was moved to write about an exotic school visit. He was inspired to draw, then to write, and, thanks to his teacher, motivated to read.

DRAWING SIX: (Hania, age 10): Her teacher tells me that Hania is an all-round scholar but not an exceptional or compulsive drawer, 'but whatever (drawing) she did, her work was always thoughtfully done, smooth, attentive and calm.' Drawing is like any other human activity: there is such a thing as talent or exceptional drive and sometimes this results in astonishingly brilliant drawings which can be referred to 'as works of art' (E.g. Joanna who drew 'Lucy was tired now...' or Zion who drew 'Boat Holiday' and dozens of others in my collection.) I have made a life-study of such drawings but I emphatically don’t want you to think that drawing is a special talent for a few any more than words are. I fall back on the Drawing Network credo: “Every drawing is a language artifact; most drawings exhibit a degree of ‘aesthetic energy’; a few rise to the level of ‘works of art’. In other words drawing-as-language is for everyone.

Whatever her background, Hania has made a drawing filled with acquired knowledge and “aesthetic energy”. It was made not for art’s sake but as part of science education. As you can see, it is replete with information about salmon and their spawning cycle. Notes were made on a field trip and a finished drawing back in the classroom. It interests me that the world above water, as Hania describes it, is a somewhat prosaic itemizing of natural elements, important science, perhaps, but the ballet occurs beneath the water thanks to her line rendering of graceful salmon bodies moving in their life cycle . Hania did not see this underwater world clearly and so we must conclude that she constructed it from limited information and a good deal of imagination. It was in this imaginative exercise that she particularly felt empathy and, without meaning to, expressed it as 'aesthetic energy'. It is not a work of art (although it is certainly artistic) because it fails to achieve a total sense of formal integration. It is, however, an outstanding example of how drawing can be used in subjects like science and social studies.

A final observation: serious study of the drawing-as-language phenomenon is frustrated by the fact that few children have been privileged to participate in a 'daily draw' or to have experienced a curriculum with drawing as a serious language element. We don’t know what such a program would do for the values of language cited elsewhere or for literacy, either for the individual child or for large populations. Research is severely handicapped because there are no statistically valid populations to study. We can only offer intelligent guesses and reasonable extrapolations, which we have tried to do.

One thing seems certain to me: the times call for a new vision of schooling in which drawing-as-language is integrated into the home/school curriculum as an auxiliary to words and numbers. Drawing combined with literacy is an incredibly rich language with many possible combinations and applications. For purposes of discussion and consideration may I suggest a model for the future schooling of children? 1) Drawing and literacy together as the basic language tools 2) the entire world and its wondrous manifestations as the subject matter of an open-ended curriculum 3) children the active researchers and parents and teachers, the active guides.

Bob Steele for the Drawing Network