Scribbling, drawing and painting for toddlers

When the skills develop, ideas on encouraging your budding artist, safety pointers and useful materials


When the skills develop
Sometime between the ages of 12 and 18 months, your child will have probably developed fine motor skills, strength and hand-eye coordination needed to produce her first scribbles. These scribbles are completely random, but they are her first step on the way to drawing and eventually, writing, as well as being the first permanent record that she produces herself, so they’re a cause for celebration!

You may find that at first your child doesn’t even look at the paper as she moves a crayon around, this is completely normal and is because she’s more interested in moving the crayon around on the surface than in the marks this leaves. This is known as ‘disordered scribbling’. It’ll be another few months before your toddler realises that the marks on the page correspond to her movements, and that she therefore has control over them.

This second phase of scribbling is called ‘controlled scribbling’ and usually lasts for a couple of years until your toddler eventually starts relating her drawing to the world around her and putting names to what she draws. In controlled scribbling phase your toddler will at some point produce vertical and horizontal lines (just don’t expect them to be very straight) as well as loops and circles. This will probably be before her third birthday, and could be as early as around 18 months.

Your toddler may have already demonstrated an early interest in finger painting by smearing her lunch generously over the tabletop. While she won’t need to hold and control anything to finger paint, it’s still useful for her fine motor development and creativity. If you’re using paints you’ll need to be prepared for a bit more mess and some kind of painting bib or overall will be a must.

Collages are a great way of combining your toddler’s creative talents with exposure to different textures, textiles and objects from nature. Every toddler develops differently, but she may be able to enjoy making very simple, unstructured collages sometime between 18 and 24 months. Why not go for a walk together and gather interesting leaves, petals, sticks and so on to glue onto paper with paint later on to make a seasonal work of art.

How to offer encouragement
There’s no need to push scribbling on your toddler, but it is a good idea to have crayons and paper or a colouring book on hand from the time she’s about 12 months old, and every now and again see if she’s interested in having a go. At first your toddler may be more interested in the crayons themselves than in what she can do with them, and particularly in giving them a good chew: Even using non-toxic crayons or paints it’s wise to show her that they’re not for eating.

If you’re using paper it’s a good idea to make it nice and thick (so it’s less likely to rip or soak through), as well as reasonably large, and tape it to the table so it doesn’t slip, particularly for painting. If she manages well with smaller pieces of paper for crayoning then it can be a good opportunity to recycle used computer paper and the like. Big, chunky crayons are easy for babies’ small hands to grasp and hold and make a good staring point.

In the early days of scribbling your toddler will be drawn to contrast and so, while it may seem a little dull to you, black on white – or vice versa – or a few bold colours are a good idea. At this stage she doesn’t need a choice of twelve colours at a time, and they’ll just mean more for you to clear up later. Some babies will prefer a blank page to scribble on, others may like to scribble over the pictures in a colouring book.

Greet whatever your toddler produces with enthusiasm. It might not look like much, but it’s a significant step in her development. Try to avoid suggesting to her that she draws something specific while she’s still in these early stages, and just let her get on with her random squiggles.

If your toddler doesn’t take to a particular medium or format then try offering an alternative. She may prefer to use chunky felt-tips or washable pavement chalk, and might be more interested in scribbling on a surface that isn’t flat, like a low blackboard or easel.

It’s best not to interfere with whatever hand your child chooses to use as she develops her scribbling skills. Most likely at this stage she will still be switching from one hand to the other, testing to see which one she prefers.

Safety & Materials
Make sure any materials you use with your toddler are non-toxic and suitable for her age-group. You need to be very careful with pens and pencils to make sure your baby doesn’t walk around with them, fall on them or poke herself in the face, as they could cause serious injury: You might find it better to avoid these completely for the time being.

Until your baby grows out of trying to eat them, you’ll need to keep a close watch on her as she scribbles, and even afterwards you’re probably better only allowing play with crayons, paints and felt-tips when an adult is around to supervise, unless you’re happy to allow her to redecorate your furniture, floor and walls.

These are some of the material could use, in versions suitable for her age-group and non-toxic:

  • Chunky crayons – Washable ones may be more expensive, but there will probably be at least a couple of occasions when you’re glad you made the choice
  • Washable chunky felt-tip pens or marker pens – These will need closer supervision and care than the crayons
  • Chunky chalks – If you have a blackboard
  • Washable outdoor chalk – The ground outside might be a more inspiring canvas for some toddlers
  • Finger paints – You can buy washable finger paints ready-made or make your own with a mix of cornstarch or flour, water and food colouring.
  • Coloured glue – Use toddler-safe glue and colour it with tempera or powder paints and use it to make colourful collages
  • Bath crayons and paints – Have fun together in the bath with soapy bath crayons and finger paints for the tub

Keeping a record
They may not look like much, but if you keep one or two of the very earliest scribbles you’ll probably be glad later. It’s also a nice idea to pop one in the post to gran. As the artwork your toddler produces becomes more colourful and expressive you’ll probably end up with them stuck up all over your home, rendering any sense of interior design pretty much irrelevant but hopefully you’ll recognise this as one of the joys of parenthood. And when it all gets too much, that’s what digital cameras are there for, save a picture file of the pieces you don’t want to keep.

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