Friday, May 15, 2009

Neurodevelopment of Drawing Ability in Children

I have had a long standing interest in the development of drawing skills in young children (from a neuropsychological perspective). Of course, children vary widely in talent, creativity, willingness to take risks, and so on, but there are some very interesting and predictable developmental stages which can be tracked through children's drawings, and which reflect what is going on at the level of brain development.

The Canadian Society for Education through Art maintains an archive of school children's art produced between 1930 to 1995, some examples of which are available in an on-line gallery. The documentation supplied is not the best (ages, dates, names of the young artists are often missing, the wrong captions are attached to some images, and the archive seems to have come to a crashing halt in 1995). Nonetheless, the archive is a potential treasure trove of data for researchers interested in cognitive development, in trends in art education, and the impact of arts education on subsequent academic achievement and vocational attainment. In a previous post, I wondered about what influence the "Kate Bush experience" had on the kids in a 1981 "Razzmatazz" studio audience, and similarly, I wonder about what has become of some of the students whose art is documented in the CSEA archive. Much of the work is wonderful, and reflects not only nascent talent on the part of the children, but the influence of dedicated and inspiring teachers.

Art produced by children between the ages of 6 and 12 provides a window into a very interesting period of neurological and cognitive development. Of course, drawing ability improves developmentally along with eye-hand co-ordination, fine motor skill, kinaesthetics etc., but what is most fascinating is the way in which children's drawing ability shows us something about the developmental progression from a "modular" brain to an "integrative" brain, as the frontal lobes develop and as interhemispheric and intrahemispheric connections are reinforced and refined.

I've pulled a few examples from the CSEA archive to illustrate.

Peter, age 6, 1976, British Columbia. (felt pen)
Peter's drawing is schematic and very verbal/analytic in nature. His drawing represents what he "knows", not what he "sees". Element by element, he documents what is important to him in the scene, as if following a list of key words or concepts. Drawing at this stage seems to be a very language-mediated activity. In the scene as he saw it, for instance, the electrical outlet would have been behind the presents and hence, not visible. But to Peter, it is a very important element, and so he includes it in his drawing.

Ken Kranrod, age 8, 1977, Alberta (pencil)
Ken's drawing is very accomplished. The detail is fantastic, and each element in his drawing is a little masterpiece. However, he is not fully out of the schematic stage. While the detail is rich and far more developed than that of the 6 year old above, Ken has not quite crossed the threshold of drawing what he sees: rather, he is representing what he knows and what is important to him when he thinks about a circus. (I love the swishy action-marks he's put in to give a sense of motion to the bear's dumbells!) Perspective, size of the elements, depth of field: none of this is developed in the overall composition. In fact, the elephant appears to be standing on the bear's head. The elephant and the hippo are also drawn in a very different, cartoon-like style, and demonstrate foreshortening in a manner that is not evident elsewhere. I wonder if these were copied from one of those "how to draw animals" books that are so beloved by children at this age, as their desire to produce representational and realistic drawings for a time trumps their joy in unfettered self-expression. By way of anecdotal finding, most kids seem to go through such a stage, although I am not aware of research specific to this observation.

Lynne Dunsmuir, age 10, 1970, British Columbia (oil pastel)
At age 10, Lynne is starting draw what she sees in a more realistic, representational manner without resorting to cartoon tricks and techniques. Her drawing is less about the disparate elements of what "makes a dog", and more about integrating categorical knowledge with real experience. At age 10, she is on the cusp of a period of tremendous frontal lobe development. She's really captured "dogness" in this drawing, because her brain now has far greater integrative capacity. Stated simply, she is more able to integrate what her left hemisphere "labels" with what her right hemisphere "sees".

A. Wallace, age 12, (Year?) New Brunswick ("paint")
A.Wallace has talent, no doubt about that. She (or he) is entering a much more mature stage of neurocognitive development. Those frontal lobes are really starting to work for her! She is in a watershed period for the development of abstract thinking, flexible problem solving, and increasing capacity for empathy, delay of gratification and moral judgment: these are all related to frontal lobe maturation (which will continue on through her late teens and even early twenties). These are all highly complex and integrative cognitive functions, and are more or less unique to humans, as is the making of art.

My apologies to colleagues and readers who may object to my oversimplification of the neuroscience involved. The point I want to make overall is that between the ages of 6 and 12, a great deal is happening in a child's cognitive and neurological development, and it is happening very rapidly. Opportunities to make art, and to be taught skills of "looking" as well as "making" should not be considered a mere recreational frill or therapeutic outlet for kids in school (although that's good, too!). Evidence is mounting that training in visual literacy and in making art may literally change brain development, by promoting and enhancing connections and feedback loops between various brain regions. (This has been studied fairly extensively in the case of music). The child's neurodevelopmental stage affects their art, and conversely, the practise of art may well affect brain development.

(related posts here, and here and here)


  1. What a terrific post! Children's art interests me and I enjoy going through the work my kids created when they were little. Both my sons have oodles of artistic talent (which they didn't get from me).

  2. Hello, Nag!
    Somehow I am not surprised to hear that the Naglets are talented. All who follow your terrific blog know that you have a very good eye and an open mind.

  3. I would be very interested in hearing your ideas about something I was told by my parents. I skipped kindergarten (went from preschool straight to 1st grade). The school wanted to move me into 1st grade, but they let me choose what I wanted to do. The reason they were a bit indecisive and almost made me stay in kindergarten was because my drawings were "too detailed." I think it is kind of an absurd reason. Can you provide some insight into this? If it helps, I can remember drawing at that age, and I would draw eyelashes, fingernails with cuticles, shoelaces, buttons, wrinkles in knuckles, and pretty much everything else one could see on a person. I've just always been so curious about what the whole incident could possibly mean. Thank you for any insight you provide!

  4. I hope you have continued to draw and make art, Ashley. While I cannot comment specifically on your situation, I can point you in the direction of further reading on the subject. The use of human figure drawings for projective testing (personality) and cognitive testing (intelligence) has a long and controversial history. You could start your research by googling "Florence Goodenough", an American psychologist who published seminal work in the field in the 1920's.