Illuminating Children’s Illustrations

Why Do We Get Better At Drawing As We Get Older?

By Anjali Shastry

Parents know this to be a simple fact of life: Children’s drawings get better as they get older. The art on the fridge slowly morphs from resembling abstract expressionism to something we recognize, maybe more like the Sunday funnies. It becomes easier to identify the objects that kids depict in their art — whether they are plants, animals, people, houses, or anything else.

But how exactly does this happen? And why?

To start learning how children’s drawing skills are related to their cognitive development, researchers Drs. Bria Long, Michael C. Frank, and Judy Fan from Stanford University’s Language and Cognition Lab started investigating how children between the ages of 2 and 10 drew objects of different categories.

To do so, the team started collecting drawings at the museum. They set up a drawing station where kids could draw different objects. The drawing station works like this: Children and their parents sit down in front of a tablet. The program guides one child at a time through a little drawing adventure, starting with tracing a few shapes. Once they finish tracing, they move through a series of prompts where they freehand various objects.

While children draw, the station saves every stroke that is made, allowing researchers to analyze the process as well as the final drawings themselves. Then, researchers use a variety of techniques to analyze how easy it is to recognize these drawings: Can we correctly identify the objects children were trying to draw?

There are no value judgments made about the art; no artistic product is evaluated for its expression or style. In just one year, the team collected upwards of 20,000 drawings across 24 object categories, but they’re just getting started.

At the station, they include things kids tend to draw and uncommon objects that they have less practice drawing. “For example, flowers are something that children draw a lot, but couches are not,” said Dr. Long. “When we ask children to draw something they don’t draw very often — like couches — they are less able to rely on a drawing routine and they really have to think about what that thing looks like before they start drawing.”

One year into their research, the researchers are noticing trends in how children depict objects as they get older. They found that children tend to include more distinctive visual features of objects in their drawings as they get older. For example, while both younger and older children may draw ears on a “rabbit,” older children tend to draw relatively longer ears, which can make their drawing look more like a “rabbit.”

They’ve also found that while children who are better at tracing simple shapes are often better at producing easily identified drawings, children’s age is still quite important. If a four-year-old who is excellent at tracing and an eight-year-old who struggles with tracing both are asked to “draw a bird,” the eight-year old's drawing is likely to still be more recognizable as a bird than the four-year-old’s.

But studying children’s drawings is tricky for several reasons. “Drawing is a naturalistic task — something children already like to do — and it integrates many different aspects of cognition: both our ability to remember what things look like and our ability to translate this knowledge into a drawing,” said Dr. Long.

“And these cognitive abilities also develop across childhood,” she said. “In other words, drawing is about much more than just about motor ability, or how well you’re able to move your fingers or a pen.”

For example, a cognitive ability we develop is learning to consider what other people may see in our drawings.

“We also consider other people’s perspective and think about how they may see what we depict,” said Dr. Long. “So one thing that we’re considering is the idea that younger children may be more likely to draw for themselves while older children may draw to communicate.”

These are the kinds of cognitive developmental journeys we see every day at the museum.

“The Drawing Station research sheds light on how children use drawing to communicate and represent their experiences. It also makes visible the endless possibilities of creative interpretation that are inspired by one specific prompt such as “Draw a cat,” said Heidi Lubin, the museum’s visual arts program developer.

“This aligns closely with our philosophy for the museum’s art spaces. We provide the space, the materials, and simple prompts to support children’s creative exploration and expression.”