photo courtesy of Flickr user Inferis
Parents know the magic that a simple coloring book and a pack of crayons can work on a screaming toddler. But did you know that those random-looking scribbles are an important developmental step along your child's path to reading and writing? As early as 15 months, children enter the first of what's called the 5 Stages of Scribbling.
Here's the basic breakdown (and please note: every child grows and develops at their own pace. Ages ranges are general approximations only.)
STAGE 1: RANDOM SCRIBBLING (15 months to 2 1/2 years)
At this early age, children are delighted to figure out how to hold a crayon (those extra jumbo crayons are super handy). Babies and toddlers will usually hold the crayons in a tight fist and use large motions from their shoulders to produce scribbles. During this stage, they make the exciting discovery that the object in their hand is producing lines on the paper (and hopefully, not the walls).
Babies are most interested in the sensory nature of art at this point; the texture of the crayon, it's unique smell. This is also a great time to introduce young toddlers to clay, play-dough, or finger paint. [check out this recipe for homemade, non-toxic play-dough] The different sensations produced by using each medium stimulates their senses and engages their developing minds.
Helpful Hint: It might help to tape down a large piece of paper for babies and toddlers. This will prevent the paper from moving or tearing as they draw.
STAGE 2: CONTROLLED SCRIBLLING (2 years to 3 years)
During this stage, children will often transition to holding the crayon between their thumb and pointer finger. Their scribbles may show more repeated marks or patterns- such as spirals, open circles, curved lines, and straight lines. As their muscle control develops, toddlers will enjoy experimenting with using a paintbrush, or working with model clay.
Helpful Hint: Use regular household objects to create art- like using Q-Tips, cotton balls, or old wine corks as applicators. Use chalk on a sidewalk, or washable paints in the bathtub.
STAGE 3: LINES AND PATTERNS (2 1/2 years to 3 1/2 years)
At this stage, children begin to understand that writing consists of special lines and curves that repeat in certain patterns. Very often, children will pretend to write. While their scribbling may not have any actual letters, you may see some early components that make up the alphabet- such as "S"-like curves, small circles, and sharp lines.
What is so magical about this stage is that toddlers are beginning to understand that those scribbles can convey meaning! That when Mommy or Daddy is scribbling, it is a list of what food to buy at the grocery store. This understanding is a big step on their way towards writing and reading on their own.
Helpful Hint: Encourage your child's "pretend" writing- and take it seriously! Ask them to "read" what they've written. This will teach them the importance and value of words.
STAGE 4: PICTURES OF OBJECTS OR PEOPLE (3 years to 5 years)
At some point, your child may hand you a page of scribbles and declare, "It's Grandma!" At the beginning of this stage, children will often produce unplanned artwork and decide what it is after they are finished.
Eventually, you may notice your child thinking about what she will draw before committing crayon to paper. This is an important developmental milestone. She is now engaged in symbolic thinking! She understands that her artwork can symbolize objects, people, or events.
Not long after, children will begin to understand the difference between pictures and writing. This is particularly important as they get ready to enter preschool and begin to work on letter awareness.
Helpful Hint: As your child begins to draw pictures, use open, non-judgemental questions to discuss the final product, such as: "Can you tell me about your picture?" Encourage your child to tell you the "story" of the picture(s). This story-telling is also an important skill for literacy!
By this stage, children may begin writing "real" letters on their own. Children usually begin with letters that are familiar to them- such as the first letter of their name. Children also begin to understand that letters fit together in special ways to make words. While they may not be able to write words on their own, they do understand that some words are short and some are long. This may be reflected in their "pretend" writing. One day, all this pretend practice will morph into the understanding and production of real letters and words!
Helpful Hint: It's okay that their letters are not technically correct. It's the process, not the product, that matters.
For more information about the 5 Stages of Scribbling, check out zerotothree.org.
And for more art project ideas for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, check out our collection of Little Hands books.