Early Literacy

Drawing & Writing

The scribbles of very young children have meaning to them, and scribbling actually helps them develop the language skills that lead to reading. Little ones who are encouraged to draw and scribble stories will learn to write more easily, effectively, and confidently once they head off to school.

For very young children, art and early writing skills are one and the same. At first, it’s all about just figuring out what these cool things called crayons can do. Then your child discovers the link between his hand holding the crayon and the line he made on the page: Presto!  He experiences the power of cause and effect. Imagine how exciting this must be for him. He can now make a real “mark” on the world. This leap in thinking skills is helped along by his growing control over the muscles in his hands that lets him move a marker or paintbrush with purpose to reach a goal.

Little ones who are encouraged to draw and scribble learn to write more confidently in school.

Four Stages of Drawing & Writing

There are generally four stages of drawing and writing from 15 months old to 3 years of age. Note that the timetables listed below are approximate; your child may master these skills faster or slower and still be developing just fine. Growth doesn’t happen at the same speed for every child, but by offering repeated fun experiences with a variety of art and writing materials, you will see forward progress over time.

Stage 1: Random Scribbling (15 months to 2 1/2 years)
Stage 2: Controlled Scribbling (2 years to 3 years)
Stage 3: Lines and Patterns (2 1/2 years to 3 1/2 years)
Stage 4: Pictures of Objects or People (3 years to 5 years)

What You Can Do to Encourage Art & Writing Skills

Let your child experiment and explore. Creativity means being able to express yourself freely.

Make art a regular part of playtime.

Offer chunky, easy-to-grip crayons, thick pencils, glue sticks, and washable markers. Cut paper bags up to draw on. Sometimes it helps if you tape the paper down on the table so it doesn’t move as they draw. As your child grows, you can include washable paints, child-safe scissors and glue, and homemade salt-dough as part of your child’s creative time. (For salt-dough recipes, check the Internet or your local library.) Let your child wear an old shirt of yours (with sleeves cut off) as a smock and lay newspaper or an old shower curtain over the table to keep it clean.

Avoid instructions.

Let your child experiment and explore. Creativity means being able to express yourself freely. Self-directed activities help your toddler feel confident in expressing his view of the world. By sitting nearby, observing, and taking pleasure in your child’s creation, you are providing all the guidance he needs.

Notice the process, not just the product.

Focus less on the outcome and more on what your child is thinking about drawing. Take a few moments to look at and describe what you see in your child’s work: Look at the lines you are making—there are so many of them! Or, I see a purple circle. Or, That picture is full of color. It makes me feel bright and happy. You can also describe what you see as you watch your child create: You are working really hard on your drawing. Or, You seem to be so happy while you do your art. Is that how you are feeling? Another option is simply to engage your child by asking: “Tell me about your picture.”

  • Experiment with a variety of art materials as your child nears 3. Let children paint with cotton balls, q-tips, sponges, string—you name it. Give your child crayons and rub over a textured surface (like a coin or a screen). Draw with chalk outside on a sidewalk; see how water changes the color of the chalk. Add powdered paint or glitter to your child’s sand play. Or add a new dimension to water play by adding drops of washable food coloring to the water. What happens when you mix two different colors of water together?
  • Use art to help your child express strong feelings. Is your child having a tantrum? Offer some playdough or set out the markers and paper and suggest she draw just how angry she is. Creative activities can sometimes help children express and make sense of feelings that are too intense for them to talk about.
  • Encourage your child’s attempts to write. If your child scribbles something and then tells you what he “wrote,” take it seriously. Let him take his “shopping list” to the supermarket or mail his (scribbled) letter to Grandma. This is how children learn that words are powerful and have meaning.
  • Display your child’s art and writing. This tells your child that her work is valued and important!
a child playing with chalk
a little girl painting
a young girl painting