When these drawings arrived in the mail from Sue Leung, I knew I had an unusual and important document to share. Sue is an inspired and inspiring art teacher who has a private studio for children in Richmond, B.C. She regularly contributes outstanding drawings for our pamphlets and other publications.

So what's so important? We know from working with kids that drawing and literacy go together to make a combined language greater than either one alone and we know that each language develops in usefulness through practice. Words join other words to make sentences and sentences expand to become paragraphs; scribbles evolve into simple schemata and schemata into story-telling pictures. There is no doubt that literacy and drawing are developmental and in two ways: both develop as language skills through daily practice and both are critical factors in the development of the child's intellect and emotional health.

I have collected children's drawings all my professional life and for the first time I had three by the same child, inspired by the same subject, and spanning three years of life. Surely this suggests longitudinal research! But research is not what I have in mind because what it would reveal, we already know. I simply want to give Drawing Network readers an opportunity to appreciate language development in a somewhat unusual context. This is an experience to relish for all who are concerned with the emergent languages of childhood.

(click on drawing to view full-sized version)

Drawing One: Nicole, Age Three: Non-representational scribbling appears when the child is first able to make marks with a crayon or beginners pencil. Sometimes scribbles contain first attempts at representation, but usually not, but soon scribbles become shapes and at some point there is a shift to deliberate form making. In art education theory this is sometimes called, "naming the scribble" which means the child has recognized a familiar object in marks which were not intended to produce a recognizable image but only to be exploratory.

In this drawing Nicole is well beyond the scribbling stage and is using drawing to tell a story and describe a place and event: she has begun the graphic language adventure. The subject is a swimming pool. There are five swimmers, one for each lane. The water is choppy although it might not have seemed so to adult swimmers. Nicole is a little girl and we can appreciate that at three she might be impressed by the man-made waves threatening to submerge her.

Nicole has ‘invented' her own schema for person but it is similar to first human representations by children everywhere: a circle for head/body with radiating limbs. Heads have facial features and scribbled-in hair. Children symbolize the human form in this way, because they share early perceptual experiences and drawing is directly related to perception.  Later there will be enormous individual differences which argue for daily drawing if we are serious about nurturing individuality in a democratic community.

(click on drawing to view full-sized version)

Drawing Two: Nicole, age-four: The pool is crowded with 19 swimmers! Some retain their head/body unity, most have differentiated heads, bodies, facial features, arms, legs, hands and feet. One child, Nicole herself perhaps, wears a two-piece suit decorated with hearts. There are waves but they seem less overwhelming. Some swimmers appear to be floating or swimming on their backs, their heads erect, well out of the water, bodies submerged. Hair too shows variation.  In Nicole's drawing development from now on the key word is differentiation! Whatever the child-artist perceives, thinks and feels, she will find a way to depict in line.

(click on drawing to view full-sized version)

Drawing Three: Nicole, age-five: Her schema for human form is now fully developed and while it is basically a formula, it is repeated again and again with variation. Details of place are established: there are waves but they are no longer a threat; lanes are identified by strings of markers; swimmers mostly wear goggles but those on the deck and two swimmers in the water don't. The gestures we associate with swimming are varied and look authentic; air bubbles suggest that there is no fear of going beneath the surface; everyone on the deck is holding hands in a friendly way and everyone, in or out of the water, on the slide or on the diving board, is happy!

At five, Nicole is mastering a language of detail and every thought, every remembered item is given its symbolic line treatment. There is even a shower head and a tiny person taking a shower! The Drawing Network supports the neglected language of spontaneous drawing, perhaps giving it a special focus because it is neglected, but we pay equal attention to emergent literacy and think of words and drawings as a combined language. In these early preschool/kindergarten years we say that spontaneous drawing is the child's best language for articulating and expressing subtle and complex perceptions thoughts and feelings. Test this claim by imagining how challenging it would be for a five-year-old to describe the contents of this drawing using words alone.

The point is, Nicole is laying the groundwork for emergent literacy in drawings like this one by manipulating the vocabulary and syntax of graphic imagery and translating these language elements into silent words and sentence fragments as she draws.The main impact on literacy, however, is made in discussions with a caring adult about theme before the drawing begins and discussions about finished drawings later. We view the combined language of words and drawings as the richest possible source of language values for children: intellectual development, mental health, mental healing when needed, a richer resource for learning, empathic feeling for humans and for the natural world, and certainly, the optimum bonding of children with parents, teachers, and other caring adults.

WHAT NICOLE'S MOM HAD TO SAY IN AN E-MAIL: "Nicole started attending Sue's drawing classes when she turned three. She started swimming when she was six months old. We have taken her swimming weekly for the past few years and she is still taking lessons. I believe Sue's teaching motivated Nicole to draw from her own life experiences. I recognized the children using the slide (in drawing three) as part of her swimming instruction."

We are indebted to Sue for Nicole's love of drawing. Since starting with Sue, she has enjoyed it very much and has been drawing daily at home. We keep samples from different stages of development as you have noticed in the three swimming pool drawings. Nicole and I look at her drawings together and we often have a good laugh. She tells me about the drawings and explains what they are about.

Drawing has helped Nicole to focus and concentrate. She loves to read and draw. According to her Grade One teacher, she reads at Grade Two level. Her reading suggests subjects for her drawing activities. After reading about fairies in a book, she draws fairies and goblins. It seems that drawing motivates her to read and reading motivates her to draw.

Sue talked to me about her method of teaching using the swimming pool experience as an example. She described four steps: First, she asked the children questions about their swimming experiences such as, "Who has gone swimming?" "What do you see at a swimming pool?" Second, she showed them a slide show of pictures at a swimming pool and discussed this with them. Third, she asked the children to demonstrate the actions of swimming, such as how you move your arms and legs. This jogs their memory and gets them thinking about how to draw the swimmers. Fourth: the children begin to draw.

Bob Steele, for the Drawing Network