If you have fond memories of doing arts and crafts as a child, you might have eagerly purchased crayons, paint, or other craft supplies for your toddler...
...only to realize that they simply have no interest in colouring or making crafts 🤷♀️
But don't worry, that will come.
Before children enjoy creating "pieces of art", they first go through scribbling phases where the focus is on the process rather than the product.
What does this mean?
It means they enjoy the sensory experience of using art materials more than they enjoy making art - the feel, smell, and sounds of it all.
Once you understand this, it can make planning art activities a lot easier and less frustrating.
Below are the three stages of scribbling that happen before children begin making "pieces of art". They often happen between the ages of 18 months and 3-4 years but note that each child develops at their own pace. There's no specific age where they “should” be.
Stage 1. Random Scribbling (The Messiest Stage!)
During this phase, toddlers are exploring different movements and the physical sensations of the art materials.
This is the phase when you’ll set the child up with some paints and a paintbrush and they’ll decide to cover the entirety of their hands in paint, with little of it actually making it to the paper!
Although this can be a frustrating and messy phase for parents, it’s helpful to let your child do it so they can satisfy this need to explore, and then move on from it.
It can be helpful to offer art activities outside or in the bathtub to avoid a big mess when your child is in this stage.
It's also worth noting that children may have difficulty staying on the paper because they’re making such big movements with their shoulders so a larger surface area may be helpful, like an easel. I also like to hang cardboard on our fence when the weather is nice.
Lastly, it's helpful if you buy appropriate art materials for this phase. For example, knowing your child will be using big movements or may push hard, do not give them materials that will easily break, like regular crayons. Our Crayola Washable Palm-Grasp Crayons are a great “first” crayon.
You may want to provide them with thick paper, like cardstock, to prevent the paper from ripping if it becomes over saturated with ink or paint.
Stage 2. Controlled Scribbling
This begins when the hands are more developed and the child has better fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
At this point, children start to use their wrists more and you'll notice their movements are smaller. Now you'll start to see dots, lines, circles, repetitive patterns.
Children will typically begin this phase with lines, followed by circular shapes. This developmental shift to smaller movements makes it easier for them to stay on the page and scribbling becomes a little less messy.
A wider variety of art materials can be introduced during this stage. A child with more control over their fine motor skills may be ready for finer tools, like regular sized crayons, markers, or paints.
Just note there will still be a bit of exploring (and mess) when you first introduce a new material but they’ll figure out how to use it “properly” faster.
Stage 3. Named or Planned Scribbling
The third stage of scribbling is when a child's scribbles become symbols for real things. This is the first step into creating “art”.
It's an indicator that the scribble stage is coming to an end and a child is capable of drawing a combination of the lines, circles, dots, patterns that they’ve practiced in the previous phases.
This is also when a child will tell you that they’ve drawn something, like a cat or a firetruck (but it still may not look like either of those things!).
During this phase it’s especially important for adults to follow the child’s lead. Rather than giving the child our opinions (“I love it!”) or interpretations (“That looks like a tree!”) of their art, we should invite conversation, “Tell me about your picture.”
At this stage, you can also offer the child a variety of art mediums to express themselves and create visual representations of the world around them.
What If My Child Has NO Interest in Art?
We get this worried question from parents in our at-home program all the time.
First, just note that the scribbling stages listed above don't usually start until 18 months so if your child is younger than this and is not interested in art, don’t worry!
Some toddlers also don't show an interest until much later. My 4.5 year didn't show much interest in colouring until closer to 3.
It could also be as simple as the art materials or activities you have aren’t interesting enough to them. You can try different paints, crayons, or dot markers, as well as different set ups, like outdoors or in the bath.
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