As adults, we each have a unique style of artistic expression. Toddlers, though, in general, all scribble the same. Across cultures, they go through predictable stages of scribbling—from a single mark to a circle with lines sticking out (aka their first portrait of you!).
Below we’ll take a look at these universal stages of scribbling between ages 1½ to 3 years. It’s important to note that while most children pass through all of the stages, there’s a lot of variability as to when and how they do it. Some might jump from one stage quickly, while others hang out for a while. What’s more, there’s often overlap between stages. The important thing is that your little one is scribbling by the time she’s 18 months old.
The Stages of Scribbling
After a toddler discovers that pressing a drawing tool on a drawing surface produces a mark, she enters the phase of random scribbling. During this stage, scribbling is less about what she’s drawing and more about the sensory experience: Noticing how different drawing tools and materials feel and smell, and learning that she needs to press harder with certain tools (like crayons) to make a mark. At this point she’s using big arm movements to make dots and other large marks, and may even send them off the paper.
As her fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination improve, scribbling becomes more controlled and purposeful. You can help her learn to make different types of smaller lines, including horizontal, vertical, and curved. She will likely make the same type of mark over and over as she practices different lines. She may also become more aware of using different colors in a deliberate way.
Growing cognitive skills lead to the next stage: Understanding that drawing can symbolize something else. Although planning what to draw ahead of time comes later, your little one will name her drawings at this stage. She may fill a paper with shapes and lines and then call it the family cat. It probably won’t look like a cat to you, but celebrate it anyway; this is a big step in your child’s cognitive and language development.
During this stage your little one’s scribbling is more controlled, and her lines and shapes are varied, smaller, and more defined. She may even experiment with drawing stories or letters.
Around age 3, the stick figure emerges. Your little one’s first stick figures will likely be circles with lines sticking out (again, children across cultures tend to draw stick figures similarly). From there, her drawing will continually evolve and become more planned, defined, recognizable, and creative.
What Can You Do?
Because drawing is so important across all areas of development, the main thing you can do to encourage it is to create plenty of opportunities for your little one to draw (our BabySparks program includes several ideas for supporting the evolution of drawing). Offer a variety of tools and materials (crayons, colored pencils, markers, paintbrushes, finger paint, etc.) for her to experiment with. If you cringed at the mention of finger paint, remember that messy play is great for sensory development, creativity, and cognitive flexibility!
Lastly, experts highlight the important role of adult interaction around drawing, and they stress following the child’s lead when talking about her artwork. For example, instead of saying, “Oh, is that a house?” Try: “I see you drew something here (point). Can you tell me what it is?”
In addition, you can nurture a growth-mindset by praising your child’s efforts instead of the end-result of her work. So instead of, “Wow, that’s beautiful!” Try: “Wow, I see you used a lot of colors!” Or instead of, “Good job! You’re Mommy’s little artist.” Try: “You worked hard on this. I love watching you paint.”
Now, go grab your little one, some paper and crayons, and scribble away!