the significance of the context
The role of drawing in children’s learning is frequently misunderstood. Even within foundation stage classrooms, where the opportunity to draw is often freely available, there is usually an adult focus upon ‘mark making leading to writing’ rather than communication and creativity. Yet drawing is one of the many languages which children use to ‘talk’ about their world, both to themselves and to others (Dyson, 1993, Gallas, 1994, Kress, 1997, Pahl, 1999, Lindqvist, 2001). Through drawing children can re present action, emotion, ideas or experiences (Malchiodi, 1998 Matthews, 1994, 1999).
This paper uses data, collected as part of a longitudinal research project about young children and drawing across settings, to illustrate the importance of the context, physical, social and cultural, in which drawing takes place.
Until relatively recently the study of children’s drawings has reflected a ‘top down’ approach which takes the pursuit of realistic representation as its goal and a stage theory which has been generalised from the work of Luquet (1927), Piaget (Inhelder Piaget, 1958), and Kellogg (1970) as its model of development (Matthews, 1992:26, 1999:84). This approach, reflected in the National Curriculum programme of study for Art (DES, 1991), has cast the young child in an outdated deficit role which does not reflect the view held by early years educators of children as ‘able learners, powerful thinkers, feeling human beings’ (Nutbrown, 1996, xv).
Also damaging to some extent, for the understanding of the role of drawing in young children’s learning, has been the exchange of the word ‘drawing’ for ‘mark making’ in educare settings (Athey, 1990, Nutbrown, 1994). The term, in emphasising the importance of children’s earliest marks for writing development, can give the message that pictorial representation is inferior to the more important role that the reading and writing of symbols has been given within the National Curriculum and within society in general. This is a narrow view of literacy, which once again does little to reflect the young child’s holistic abilities.
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) seminal ecological model of human development gives insights into how young children are situated as learners by the societies in which they are nurtured and educated. Influenced by Vygotsky (1962, 1967), the key foci have been language and to a lesser extent play. Little is known, however, about the impact upon a child’s use of drawing of firstly the different settings of home and pre school or school, and secondly the roles taken by ‘significant’ others in ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning contexts, particularly over any length of time.
The influence of context on young children’s drawing development
This paper takes a sociocultural approach to the study of young children’s drawings. It recognises that:
the child is a co constructor of meaning and an active player in his or her world
culture acts as mediator between the child and his/ her environment
the role of adults and more able peers/ siblings is significant in ‘scaffolding’ learning
the role of the peer group is significant in a young child’s learning
language, play, objects, artefacts, and the meanings attributed to them, are mediating tools within and across cultures in children’s learning
Vygotsky, 1962, 1967; Rogoff, 1990; Wertsch, 1985)
Drawing is seen to have originated from children’s physical action (Matthews, 1994; 1999) and play (Vygotsky, 1995). Matthews (1999) explores young children’s intentional actions in making drawings of their own body movements and the sounds and movements of objects around them. He calls these ‘action representations’. In common with Athey (1990) he describes development as ‘an interaction between what is unfolding in the child and what is available within the environment’ (Matthews, 1994). Athey concentrates on drawing as a reflection of children’s inner schematic representations, the developing organisational or conceptual systems by which they make sense of diverse aspects of life. Matthews, however, sees children’s drawings ‘located within a family of expressive and symbolic actions used fluently by children between 3 and 4 years of age’ (1999:49). He draws attention to the interrelationship of a range of conceptual interests and emotional concerns, which are reflected within children’s ‘artistic’ representations. Referencing the work of Trevarthen (1980, 1995) he suggests that ‘the basis for the expression of emotion and the representation of objects and events form within an interpersonal arena between caregiver and infant’ (1999:17). It is within this interpersonal relationship that the child acquires ‘skills in viewing, handling and visually tracking objects, plus the expressive and representational possibilities these might have.’ (1999:18).
For Vygotsky there is a close relationship between play and art and ‘the entire process through which children develop cultural awareness’.
‘Vygotsky (1995) argues that children’s creativity in its original form is syncretistic creativity, which means that the individual arts have yet to be separated and specialised. Children do not differentiate between poetry and prose, narration and drama. Children draw pictures and tell a story at the same time; they act a role and create their lines as they go along. Children rarely spend a long time completing each creation, but produce something in an instant, focusing all their emotions on what they are doing at that moment in time.’Play is seen by Lindqvist to create meaning. She argues that it is a ‘dynamic meeting between the child’s inner life (emotions and thoughts) and its external world’ and as such should not be interpreted as a ‘realistic presentation of a certain action’ but as reflecting reality ‘on a deeper level’. Both play and art, in enabling the child to create an imaginary or fictitious situation, are seen to enable the child to move towards ‘disembedded from action’ thinking, towards abstractions from the here and now (Lindqvist, 2001).
Building upon the work of Wells (1986) and Bruner (1996) the term ‘meaning making’ is used extensively when considering the child as a learner from a sociocultural perspective. Dyson (1993) sees a symbol, be it a word, picture or dance, existing because of a ‘human intention to infuse some tangible form a sound, a mark, a movement with meaning and, thereby, to comment on or take action in the social world’. Symbol making is, for Dyson, ‘the essence of being human’ and drawing, as a symbolic system, is one of the ways humans liberate themselves ‘from the here and now’. Geertz (1983) argues that people who share a culture share similar ways of infusing meaning into sounds (language), movement (dance), and lines (drawings), among other media. Children, by using symbols, join with others who share the same ‘imaginative universe’ or ‘worlds of possibility’. Dyson illuminates the way drawing is helped by the critical role of talk and gesture to become ‘a mediator, a way of giving a graphic voice to an intention’ (Dyson, 1993:24). She draws attention to Vygotsky’s description of drawing as a kind of ‘graphic speech’ (Dyson, 1982).
Drawing as narrative in young children’s development
If speech is seen to be internalised as thought (Vygotsky, 1978) can we assume that ‘graphic speech’ has its own internal visual narrative? Gallas (1994:xv) takes the view that children’s personal narratives, formed in an attempt to order and explain the world from all aspects of their experience, ‘are often part of the silent language that embodies thinking’. She takes ‘an expanded view’ of children’s narratives, not confining them to the spoken or written word, but including the stories they tell from early childhood ‘in dramatic play, in their drawings and paintings, in movement and spontaneous song.’ In putting forward her view of the young child as a powerful meaning maker, Gallas draws attention to adults within school settings not enabling young children to make use of their ‘enormous number of innate tools for acquiring knowledge’ (xv) or their different modes of representation which might be visually, verbally or kinaesthetically based.