Drawing Milestones

In child development, one of the underappreciated areas of development is the developmental stages of drawing, and specifically drawing milestones. Here, we are talking all things drawing, and what to look for when a child draws. This post will delve into the typical drawing milestones for young children or learners beginning to draw (as not all learners develop at the same pace).  You will also learn about what a drawing might say about a person.  The post will also include helpful strategies for developing drawing milestones as what to look for. Let’s explore development of drawing skills in detail. 

Also be sure to check out all of the ideas on our creative painting list for more self-expression fun.

Drawing milestones

Drawing Milestones

What do you look for when analyzing a learner’s drawings?  Design copy, clarity, number of details, realism, or psychosocial issues?  It can be all, some of the above, or something entirely different.  

From a toddler scribbling to a teenager drawing realistic art representations, there are various developmental stages of drawing that progress as grip, visual motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and imaginative thinking (and other areas) develop.

The following is a general guide to the development of drawing skills.  Not all learners develop at the same rate or age, however they tend to follow a similar pattern.  

According to the Empowered Parents group, caregivers should not teach drawing skills, or use coloring books, as this stunts the learner’s natural creativity.  This is a presumptive statement, as learners who are neurodivergent, or who have special needs, do not learn in the same way as their typical peers.  

Due to lack of insight or awareness of their environment, some learners will need to be taught or shown a model. 

Developmental Stages of Drawing

There are definite developmental stages of drawing, however, not every individual will progress through these stages in the same timing. 

Unlike other areas of developmental milestones, the development of drawing skills is fluid. Consider the ages and stages listed below as approximate as well as the characteristics for each stage.

  • At about 12 months of age, babies can make a mark on the paper about an inch long
  • 15-18 months babies draw scribbles and lines. This scribbling stage is the stage of cause and effect, with uncontrolled motor movements.  
  • Age two years is the start of controlled scribbling.  Learners may be able to draw lines and circular loop strokes.  They may be able to write a figure that looks like the letter T, but not purposefully intersecting lines yet. At this age learners understand that their movements are able to make marks on the paper. Drawing occurs through movement in the elbow and use of the whole hand. Fine motor control is becoming more of a contributing factor to line drawings. 
  • Three year olds are able to make basic circles, crosses, dots, loops, and sometimes poorly formed squares. Their drawing of a person resembles a tadpole, with a large head and floating legs.  Very little detail is added at this stage. They may be able to tell you about their picture, even if it is not recognizable.  Drawing continues to use the whole hand to make pencil movements. They do not accurately use colors to represent images. Hand eye coordination plays a role but it is primitive at this stage of drawing.
  • By four years learners begin making patterns and attributing meaning to their artwork. They are able to make circles and squares, and attempt a triangle, although usually poorly formed. They start pre writing skills at this stage. Their drawing of a person contains some details such as arms, eyes, and fingers.  Some children will begin to form a trunk at this stage.  Learners can start adding items together to form something like a house or a car.  Often they learn these skills by watching others.
  • At five years, drawing has some realism as well as detail to it. Their person may have hair, ears, glass, fingers, and clothing.  They start to be able to draw other familiar objects such as houses, horses, dogs, trucks, and rainbows.  They use color to represent certain features such as eye color, hair, or color of a house.  Objects are generally out of proportion and floating, as learners have not developed visual perceptual skills to understand these concepts yet.  Interesting tidbit from Empowered Parents: children often place themselves large, and in the center of their drawing as they are egocentric at this stage.
  • Ages 6-7: learners start to develop a specific drawing style.  Their shapes and representations are more clearly defined at this stage. They start to draw things in perspective. such as a tree being bigger than a person, or the family standing in the grass. Colors are more realistic at this stage. Learners tend to draw what they know or are interested in.  They draw their perception of the world, such as a horse being very large next to them or windows being very high on a house.
  • Seven to twelve: drawings start to have a pattern to them, learners develop a more artistic style, and some learners begin to excel at drawing. 

Just as the average adult reads at a fifth grade level, I would venture a guess that most adults can draw at this childhood level also!  

Drawing Milestones Tests

One of the famous drawing milestones tests was seen in a scene from Silence of the Lambs. In the movie, the subject was asked to draw a person, a tree, and a house, so the examiner could determine if the man was psychotic.  

Other drawing tests are used to determine visual motor integration levels. Occupational therapists are familiar with the use of basic shapes in order to determine visual motor skills and visual perceptual skills

One of these drawing tests is the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency (BOT2). This test includes a form copying portion to determine visual motor integration skills.

Another drawing test is portions of the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration (Beery VMI). This test is an assessment of the child’s development of visual motor integration and includes drawing assessment to copy geometric forms arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

Draw a Person Test

The creators of the Draw a Person test claimed it was able to determine if a person had schizophrenia by the nature of the subject’s drawing.  Features such as a large head, no hair, omitted ears, and large hands, indicated various conditions such as paranoia, narcissism, oppositional behavior, impulsivity, and more.  

What do you look for when analyzing a picture? In school we learned that a person without eyes must have poor eye contact or difficulty seeing, whereas a person without ears feels they are not heard.  In practice it seems more likely that the learner forgot certain elements, doesn’t think about parts like ears, or has not mastered that stage of drawing milestones.

Have you seen any drawings that have made you pause?  Perhaps a young child drawing something graphic or violent, or possibly inappropriate?  As a rule of thumb, I try to analyze the learner as a whole, rather than becoming overly alarmed simply by their drawings. 

Clock Drawing Test

Clock-drawing tests are a traditional tool to assess the mental status of patients and is one of the most widely used screening tests for cognitive impairment in Alzhiemer’s Dementia. By drawing a clock from memory, this drawing test can assess various components such as executive functioning, visual spatial skills, and semantic memory. This drawing assessment shows presence of a cognitive decline in patience.

Benefits of Drawing 

What are the Benefits of Drawing?

  • Helps build eye-hand coordination
  • Works on bilateral integration
  • Develops fine motor skills
  • Enhances creativity when drawing freely
  • Begins the foundation of pre-writing skills
  • Helps develop grasping pattern
  • Addresses attention and focus
  • Develops cognitive skills, visual perception, and social function
  • While tracing and copying do not develop creativity, these activities will help build the other important skills above.  Hopefully copying drawings will develop into creative expression

How to Develop Drawing Milestones

  • Provide lots of tools/mediums for drawing and exploration including paint, chalk, markers, crayons, finger paints etc
  • Encourage creativity and free play with drawing tools and craft supplies
  • Entice young learners with fun objects such as glitter, sequins, pom poms, and colored paper to add to their pictures
  • Model drawing and coloring skills- color at a restaurant, while waiting for a doctor, or as a family
  • Play family drawing games such as Pictionary
  • Some learners may refuse crayons because of the texture or force needed to color.  Provide alternatives such as markers, bingo pens, or paint brushes to encourage expression
  • Look at all of the details of the drawing when critiquing. How many body parts are present, how many different colors were used, are the shapes open or closed at the corners, is the picture recognizable to others.  These measurements can be used to track their performance from previous work.

Despite what the folks at Empowered Parents say, I personally love a good coloring book.  It has not stunted my creativity,  because there are endless color combinations, glitter pens, and coloring styles!  

Drawing Milestone Activities

If a child (or older individual) has an interest in drawing, this is a great way to support development of skills. Try some of the drawing activities listed below.

The OT Toolbox is a great resource for drawing and coloring activities.  Check out some of these products:

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Drawing milestones

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