Drawing to Learn in Children’s Early Years

by | Jan 4, 2022 | Articles, Inspirations

Alex’s story began because of the colour red.

Whether by accident or design, Alex had layered an elongated red belly button onto the centre of his drawing of an orange pumpkin. He was fingering the smear of red crayon when I joined him.

“It’s blood,” four-year-old Alex explained. “The pumpkin is bleeding.”

“Oh my,” I responded, “I’ve seen a lot of pumpkins. I’ve found seeds and long stringy bits inside them, but I’ve never seen a pumpkin bleed before!” I gingerly touched the smear of red crayon too and checked my fingertip for evidence of blood. Then I picked up Alex’s drawing and flipped it to the underside of the paper. “No blood on this side. Looks like the blood is still inside its skin.” I flipped the paper back to reveal Alex’s orange pumpkin once again.

“Pumpkins have blood. They need blood to live,” Alex elaborated. “I cut it with a sword… from a pirate ship!”

Alex reached for scissors and began to cut. His ‘sword’ snipped menacingly at the edges of his paper transforming the buffer of paper around his picture into a simulated tasselled rug. But then, just as suddenly, Alex pivoted his paper to cut around the outline of his pumpkin. The paper’s fringe fell like snow on his table. Alex, apparently, was not going to kill his pumpkin with slashes of scissor blades. He was going to remove his pumpkin from danger and take care of its gaping belly wound at a hospital.

Alex was engaged in narrative thinking – inspired by the act of colouring and the associations he made with specific colours; fed by his theories about what it means to be alive; expanded by remembered stories about pirates; and dramatized through the sensorial act of cutting.

Alex’s drawing was far more complex than a simple visual representation of a pumpkin. His drawing wove together ideas about life, of adventure and rescue, of relationship to colour and nature, and his own feelings of empathy and knowledge of how to care for others.

A Reggio-inspired perspective on drawing to learn

“For human beings, from the youngest age, storytelling is a way of knowing, of processing experience of attributing and sharing meanings, of creating connections between things and between events, a way of participating in the collective imagination of humanity.” (Mosaic of Marks, Words, Material, page 150)

As I read and lingered over these words from the book Mosaic of Marks Words Material published by Reggio Children, I felt myself sink a little more deeply into the ideas and experiences captured and examined by these educators from Reggio Emilia, Italy. In Mosaic of Marks Words Materials children’s mark making told stories. Children’s drawings were dynamic and thought-filled.

At first glance, a child’s drawing can look like still-life – a static example of skill development. But from a Reggio-inspired perspective, drawing is movement. It is movement of a child’s thought, an exploration of concepts, changing pitches and volumes of sounds, waves of emotions, and the bubbling up of stories from within.

How Does Learning Happen through drawing?

Drawing to LearnHow Does Learning Happen?, Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years, was greatly influenced by the Reggio Emilia Approach. How Does Learning Happen? urges early learning and care educators to tune into children’s thinking, and to make this thinking visible through documentation. Photographs of children engaged in play, their words and conversations are captured to study and tease out big ideas children are trying to communicate, explore, and better understand. Children’s drawings also help illuminate their thinking processes as their ideas shift and grow.

Alex’s drawing experience, and the ideas from Mosaic of Marks Words Material, show us that making children’s thinking visible isn’t just for the enlightenment of educators. It’s about making a child’s thinking visible to him, her, or them too.

Without the influence of the Reggio Emilia Approach, educators can be tempted to use drawing experiences to slot children’s thinking into check boxes compatible with child development theorists or emergent literacy goals. It’s common practice in many programs and classrooms to prompt children to draw or paint, then ask them what they would like written on their paper about their drawings. These scribed words interpret the meaning of children’s marks and drawings to adults. They are noted as evidence of how well children are meeting anticipated learning outcomes.

But is this way of making children’s thinking visible to adults usurping children’s meaning-making?

Drawing as Thinking


Debi Keyte-HartlandDebi Keyte-Hartland, in the “Drawing as Thinking” series for educators, shares her childhood remembrances of how her beloved teacher habitually printed words on Debi’s drawings. To this day Debi recalls feeling her teacher’s actions communicated to Debi that her pictures were not good enough; that her drawings needed text to be understood by others. She also internalized an unspoken value statement that, to adults and society, drawing is a lesser form of expression than printed words.

In her engaging Drawing as Thinking lecture series, Debi Keyte-Hartland explores the myriad of ways in which children with whom she has worked use mark-making and drawing as tools for thinking. She spotlights how these children use drawing to weave ideas, experiences, and stories together to solve challenging problems. She offers insights into how educators can listen and observe children carefully as they draw, and how specific materials and tools can sharpen children’s focus on the problem or idea they are intent of solving or expressing.

And, amid all this analytical thinking on the part of early learning educators and children, Debi reveals how drawing experiences become incredible opportunities to deepen children’s relationships with nature, and how drawing projects can bring children into spaces of listening and learning from one another.

What if…

I had written “The pumpkin is bleeding.” on the bottom of Alex’s picture?

  • What would Alex have internalized about what is important to learn and valuable to others?
  • Would I have walked away from Alex satisfied that I knew enough about the depth of his thinking? His imagination? His wonderings about life? His flow of emotions and emergence of compassion toward the main character in his story?

Drawing with young children is far more complex than learning how to hold and manipulate a pencil or marker. And it’s far more exciting than waiting expectantly for children to progress through stages of drawing skill development.

I like to define a drawing as a journey where the child is a traveller on a search to discover herself and the world, a curious child who scrutinizes every corner, every centre, every boundary of that space/paper, every landscape that takes shape and life on the paper, who is ready to be amazed and to capture the emotion, the suggestion, the expressive potentials of those marks and drawings. (Mosaic of Marks Words Materials, page 143)

Drawing is a journey of learning where educator and child can deepen their thinking together.

Uncover the depth of your own thinking about drawing to learn in children’s early years with with Debi Keyte- Hartland in the Drawing as Thinking series at Early Learning Café.

For more information about the Drawing as Thinking 5-Module Community of Learning Series from Early Learning Café, click the button below.




Mosaic of Marks Words Materials; Reggio Children, Reggio Emilia, Italy, 2015