Stop Trying to Find Meaning in Your Kid's Artwork

Realism in art means different things to different kids. And that's OK. (Photo: StockPhotoVideo/Shutterstock)

Have you ever been handed a child's drawing and had to look into the hopeful eyes of its youthful artist, only to realize she expects you to know exactly what sh's drawn? If you're like most, you panic.

"Is this me? Is it you? The dog? Your bear-bear?" We always want to assign meaning and definition to kids' art, even when they can barely wield a pencil. We've gone so far as to assess kids' cognitive development based on how they portray themselves and the world around them.

But a new generation of psychologists suggests that this kind of straight-line projection misses the point, as an article in The Atlantic describes so well.

For decades, educators have judged development based in part on how realistically a child puts crayon to paper. Toddlers are expected to use wild strokes that focus more on color than depicting an image. As kids get older and begin to understand more about the world around them, those strokes are supposed to take shape, forming images. A person may first be represented as a circular blob, then as more of a tadpole with legs but no arms, and then finally as more human; with arms, legs, hair and maybe even facial features.

According to the old theory, this artistic progression matched the child's development. That human tadpole figure? Experts just assumed that the child did not yet fully grasp his or her surroundings.

But many art educators now think that this is a one-dimensional way to view a child's artistic development. For many kids, realism isn't the objective. Some kids use art to tell a story. Details are less important than the story they're trying to tell.

"Kids nearing the age of 7-9 are starting to see more and more details in the world surrounding them, sometimes to such an extent that their compositions are turning into x-rays or maps of their surroundings," says Diana Stelin, an arts educator at The Plein-Air Art Academy in Boston. But that doesn't mean that they will always represent those details in a way that adults deem realistic. A child may draw a human blob figure, a fence and the sun, all in the same plane and in shapes and sizes that don't match reality. But that doesn't mean that their art, or their grasp on reality, is any less developed than the child who draws more realistic images. Both images show that the child is starting to notice the world around them, and "it's important for the parents to be educated about the proper level of kids' development as opposed to forcing the adult version of the world on their art," says Stelin.

"We as adults might think that realism is preferred and appreciated, but by demanding realism from our kids, we essentially make them lose their sense of wonder," adds Stelin. For many kids, the final product is less important than the joy they had in creating it.

If you've ever seen a kid draw a truck while making zooming noises or act out a tea party while making what looks like simple scribbles on paper, you get this. Lots of kids just enjoy the play that comes with creating art and are less concerned with making their images realistic.

That sounds like pretty good development to me.

If your kids are striving for realism in their art, go ahead and compliment them on their work. But if their project looks more like a whirlwind of scribbles and squiggles, ask them instead about the story that goes with their picture. You may be surprised at the creative tale that unfolds.