The Stages of Drawing, Part 1

How do we learn to draw? Do children, or adults pass through different stages as they grow in terms of how they learn to draw?

Yes they do. Each stage comes with its unique challenges and joys and limitations to how we can help them draw better.

I thought, perhaps, it would be helpful to start this year’s tutorials with this: What are the stages of drawing and what can you expect from a child or student? How can you help teach them to draw?

Before we begin…

A quick word about that this can be, and what it cannot do. Like any arena of childhood development (walking, talking, reading, writing…whatever.) there are a range of ages that each child can progress through and still be “normal”. In addition, “progress” through the stages isn’t a simple yes-no proposition. A child will go back and forth between stages as they grow into the next stage, before fully entering the new stage. These transition periods are similar to the way many children, after they take their first steps, will still crawl and walk in different circumstances for some weeks to months, but eventually, they will give up crawling and will walk everywhere.

Different children will need different things in each stage. When you’re potentially working with mixed-age groups, or, like your own kids, a mixed age class ( my homeschool group, tutors ages 4-13 in 3-4 different groups), there’s a broad range in what will challenge different students and their instructors.

These stages of Drawing Development were named by Dr. Viktor Lowenfield in his 1949 work, “Creative and Mental Growth”. Many of these stages were noted as early as the 1880’s and are still being refined, so these names and rough stages are a good place to start, and are commonly referenced still today.

The Stages are:

  • Scribble (with sub-stages): Approx: ages 18 mos to 3 or 4 years old.
  • Pre-Schematic: approx. ages 4-7
  • Schematic: approx. ages 6-10
  • Dawning Realism/Transitional Stage: approx. ages 9-11
  • Age of Reason/Pseudo-Naturalistic Stage: approx ages 11-13
  • Period of Decision/Period of Crisis: (This takes place for most of us in our early adolescence. Most will decide it’s not worth pursuing art, and their style will stall at Dawning Realism or Age of Reason stages.)
  • Realism:  This stage is different.

Scribble and its sub-stages

Ages: From the moment a child grabs a mark-making device (marker, crayon, pencil, finger-paint, their hand in dirt…) to around 4 years old.

Love the Process, don’t care much about the Product yet

This was one of my children’s drawings from many years ago, she was probably two, at the time.

From the moment a child can pick up something that will make a mark (hopefully on paper, but that isn’t always the case!) they try to make marks anywhere they can. Their focus is intense, but short-lived each time they draw.

Interestingly, the word “scribble” comes from the Latin word “scribere”, which means, “to write”. It’s where we get the term “scribe” from. This stage, since the child is developing his or her mass muscle control of the mark-making device, is critical to their later development of drawing, AND writing.

Sub-stage A: Uncontrolled Scribbling (until approx. 2 years old.)

Like the name suggests, this stage, from the moment the child first starts making their mark on the world to about the age of 18 months to 2 years, is the stage where they are just scribbling everything everywhere.

They scrawl overlapping scribbles of as many colors as they can get their hands on, and there is little control of the marks. They hold their marker/crayon/pencil in a fist and tend to move their whole hand, often from the shoulder. He or she will often destroy their art supplies (smashed marker tips, broken crayons, snapped pencil tips) they learn how tightly to hold them or how hard to press on the paper

Sub-Stage B: Controlled Scribbling, Longitudinal and Circular

Ages: Approx 18 mos to 4 years

This sub stage has, at times, been split into the two. Instead of completely uncontrolled scribbles, the child has gained enough muscle control to deliberately choose a touch-down and pick-up point for their mark making tool. They can start to control their muscles enough that they are more-likely to stay on their paper. (Not always, but starting too…)

The first sign of this stage is almost always lines–up and down lines, back and forth lines, crossed lines, things like that.

The second part of this stage is the circular stage which features, you guessed it, circular motions–curls, spirals, ovals, circles, ect.

Like before, this stage is still about mass muscle control, the child is experimenting with placing his or her marks exactly where they want them. This stage is incredibly important for muscle and hand control for both writing and drawing.

Scribble sub-stage C: Named Scribbling

Ages: Up to the end of the Scribble stage

In terms of the apperance of art, nothing really changes. The product, their scribbled paper, looks the same to most people.

But the fascinating part of this stage is they now NAME and DESCRIBE what the scribbles mean to them. They have started to reveal how they see the world, and the thoughts they have about it. So instead of, “Look what I made!”, it’s now, “That’s you, and that’s me, and that’s …” (You might be a blue scribble, and they might be a green scribble…)

By linking their outside world to the marks they, themselves, have made on their paper, they have started to create art, instead of simple marks.

They are thrilled with what they made, but they are not self-critical. Their joy is the process of making their mark on the world, not the final result. 

To teach this age: Let them explore with different types of “medium”. My kids liked finger paints designed for the tub (I did too–easy clean up of kid and paint! Only Nana was brave enough for “real” finger paint!) If you can, give the kids access to different types of colors of paper, different types of markers, water-soluble paints, ect. Nothing expensive, because they may ruin it, but the focus at this age is all about the experience of working with different things. Teach boundaries as well. The rule in my house has been “Paper Only”, and while that hasn’t spared my walls and floor completely (see next stage), it has helped prevent some disasters. I wish I’d been more strict about the “clean up” rule though…harder to implement retroactively.

If your child shows you their work, try not to ask “What is it? “, but ask, “Can you tell me more about it?”  This gives the child an opportunity to show you all the parts he or she likes about their work, and doesn’t suggest you don’t “see” their work the way they do.  (We don’t, but they don’t need to know that!)   Once they get to the “Named Scribble” stage, the things they will tell you that are taking place in the drawing are really interesting! 


The Pre-Schematic Stage

Ages:  Usually between ages 4-5, but can begin as early as age 3 and continue as late as age 7).  

 The Child loves the Process, and is proud of the Product

I remember taking my oldest child to the pediatrician, and, in the course of asking all the normal questions about what all my kiddo was doing, the doctor asked, “Are they drawing figures yet?  Like pictures of your family?” 

I kind of blinked at him, and said, “I didn’t realize that was something to look for. But I don’t think so.” 

He just nodded and said, “Well, be on the lookout for it.  It’ll probably happen before you two come back in six months.” 

Sure enough, later that day, I’m picking up my room, and move a bunch of laundry off of my chair to hang, and I spot it: a crayon-ed pic of the family…on my wall behind the chair.  We had no necks, and arms erupted from our ears, our legs were really long, and our hair was a scribbled mass on top of the lopsided “head”, but they were unmistakably us…right down to my glasses.

So much for “Paper Only…”

I went and got my oldest, who loved telling me all about this newest creation, Mommy, Daddy, even the dog.  After telling her I was proud of her new creation, but reminding her “What do we draw on?”

“Paper only.”

“Is this paper?”

  “No”. She looked apprehensive.  

“No, and I can’t hang it up on the refrigerator or send it to anyone, or save it, because it’s not on paper, I have to wash it off of the wall.  So next time, paper only, right?”

She brightened up.  “I’m sorry Mommy!  I’ll go make another one.” 

And off kiddo dashed.  Natural consequences for the win!  (She stuck to paper after that.) 

We’d entered the “Pre-Schematic Stage”

“Schema” is from the Greek language, and means “figure, appearance, nature of a thing”. “Pre-“ is a Latin prefix (1) meaning, “before”, or “before in time”. So this stage is literally “Before [child draws] figures”

Personally, I find that hysterically funny, because this is the age figures DO appear. We can tell what they are–sort of. The person has a face and arms and legs and hair…they may be missing a body, or neck–or have a giraffe-like neck. The legs might be longer-than-Barbie long. Fingers might look like sticks–or the figure may have more or fewer fingers than five per hand. The eyes might be a dot or they make a Disney Princess or a Manga character look squinty-eyed, but the basics are there: it’s a person.

This is by the first drawing’s older sibling, who was deep in the pre-schematic stage. You can see the beginnings of an obviously human shape (I think it was me carrying a basket) , some animals, including our floppy-eared dog, and some longitudinal scribbles above. There’s even a name.

Dogs and cats will have heads, floppy or pointed ears, a tail, and legs, maybe whiskers. If your household has one of these things as a pet, then you may see whatever colors and/or patterns from the child’s pet on their drawings. You’ll see trees, flowers, various things. They are recognizable as something more than scribbles.

Sometimes, size of objects or body parts will change from picture to picture. A person standing in a picture is more likely to have arms roughly the same length, but if that person holds something, the hand and arm doing the holding might be many times larger than the other, non-holding hand. (This happened in the above picture. The “basket-holding hand” is larger, though not dramatically, than the non-basket holding hand) Because the thing the person is holding is important to the “story” of the picture, the child will likely make the holding hand bigger. If a person is standing under a tree, the tree will likely be larger than the person, like real life, BECAUSE the person is standing under the tree. However, if a person happens to be standing and there is a tree on the picture, then the person, and the tree, might be the same size. (Ex: again, from the above picture, our dogs were 40 and 50 pounds, not large enough to look me in the eye…)

These items will often “float” on the paper–there is little “up” or “down”. Most of the time, the items will be complete, and non-touching of each other. They can’t overlap, they can’t hide behind each other, because, to the child’s mind, these things are complete; to not draw some part means the thing is injured or somehow incomplete.

Colors seem to be chosen more based on whatever happened to be in reach, the child’s like/dislike of certain colors, or their emotional stage. So “Mom” or “Dad” might have blue skin or green hair or pink eyes, not because those things exist as those colors, but because the child likes those colors. If your black cat is pink, your child might say kitty is happy.

Since writing and drawing are still closely intertwined at this stage, you’ll likely see letters in these drawings. The letters may be frequently reversed, which is normal at this stage. If they are free-drawing and free-writing (you’re not telling them what to draw or write), they will write words which are meaningful to them–most often, their own name. Most children haven’t made a distinction between writing and drawing yet (after all, it’s all making marks on a surface with a tool), so words and letters may be scattered among the drawings.

One aspect of writing/drawing that appears at this age which I wasn’t previously aware of is called “inventive spelling”. Inventive spelling means the child is spelling words based on the sounds they can hear and understand, for example:


Can you guess what that word is? Try to sound it out.

The word is….


Makes sense when you name the letters in order: “L” “F” “N” and the “ta” sound for “T”.

One other developmental stage that likely appears here, if it hasn’t already: the dominant hand will solidify. Will your child be a lefty or a righty? In this stage, you’ll probably be able to tell more.

How to Teach at this Stage:

Like before, make sure there are materials the child can use to free draw, but in addition, you can start to help them see the shapes of the world. If you can use those shapes to reinforce letters, ever better.

An ice cream cone: The bottom edges of the outside look like a “V”, don’t they? The scoop is round, like an “O” (or a zero: “0”). A carrot is like a really long, skinny “V”, with a rounded top, right? A banana is two curved lines, like wide “U”s, with a pointed end on one side, and a stem–like two short straight lines on the other, isn’t it?

How about broccoli? (Looks like a tree, doesn’t it? A flat bottom, with lines curving out, and ending in lots of little circles, or better yet, a BUNCH of curly scribbles?” )

A cup? (A squashed circle, wide and fat, with two straight lines coming down, with a curved bottom, like a wide “U”)

A snake? (I think a snake looks like two “S”s, side by side, with a pointed tail, and a nearly circular head. Let’s make a tiny “v” for his tongue sticking out, tasting the air, and a dot for his eye” What do you think?)

Ask them what colors they see on objects. Ask them what shapes do they see. When you’re out and about, see something simple (a piece of food, a single object, an insect, a stick, a sign) and ask, “Huh. How would you draw that, do you think?” See what they say. This will get their mind thinking about what sort of impressions make up their world.


At this age, kids are enjoying their art. They love the process of creating something. If we, in our desire to help them along, push for continual improvement, then we can steal that process joy, which would slow, or even hamstring, their development. I would, once a week or so, simply sit down with your child and say, “Hey, I want to draw something, can I draw with you?” Draw the simple objects like the ones above, then be done. Let kiddo work his or her own magic their own way otherwise. Talk about how you “might” or “could” draw something, and see what happens.

Keep up asking them to explain more about their art to you! They will love it, and it will help them think through their piece and encourage future pieces.