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Toddler development: Learning how to draw and write

5-minute read

Learning how to write and understand words is an essential life skill that is first developed in infancy and builds gradually during the pre-school and lower primary years.

In the early years, a toddler’s scrawl and primitive attempts at drawing and writing are important building blocks in the way they communicate.

Computers and tablets have changed our traditional approach to writing. However, a lot of communication relies on the ability to write words and create images to let other people know what we are thinking and feeling.

When will my toddler show an interest in drawing and writing?

Most toddlers show an interest in making marks with crayons or pencils from around 2 years of age. Most scribble with lots of lines, even dots and circles, but do not create a recognisable picture.

When learning to write, many children are keen to practise drawing with a soft crayon on white paper. At first they won’t know which end to use, they hold the crayon sideways or put it straight into their mouth. They may wave it around, clasping it in their whole hand or use their fist to grab onto it.

Using a pen or pencils, making lists, writing letters and even developing shopping lists all offer opportunities for toddlers to see and mimic what others are doing.

How will I know when my toddler is ready to draw?

Hand writing requires a set of skills that include fine motor, concentration, language and memory. Children do not develop in a steady, consistent pattern. They have periods of rapid development when they learn many new skills, followed by times when they incorporate new talents.

The first clue you’ll have is that your toddler seems interested. They may look for a crayon or pencil, hold it in their hand and then make attempts at drawing. Gradually, they’ll learn to control their hand movements as the signals that go from their brain to their hand become more refined.

If they seem unsure, make a start yourself by drawing some meaningless lines on the paper. Let them see you hold the crayon and connect it with the writing surface and then give them the crayon to try themselves.

Avoid colouring in or copying exercises in the early stages of learning to draw. These can be too restrictive and hamper imagination. Let them draw what they like — with drawing, it’s not the end result that counts with toddlers.

How can I help my toddler learn to draw and write?

Try to be imaginative about the ways your toddler can learn. Paper, cardboard, blackboards, drawing boards, sand and dirt, and even concrete are all good surfaces for writing on. Start with crayons — the fat round ones are often best for small hands, colouring pencils and wax crayons, paints, chalk and even sticks poked into dirt are all fine.

Large sheets of paper and cardboard stuck to a wall are a great option. Drawing on these requires movements from the large muscle groups as well as the fine motor. Balance and depth perception are also supported when they are standing and drawing.

Handwriting evolves over time. It generally starts with scribbling random vertical lines with no pattern or structure. They will then start drawing circles, then basic outlines, and eventually they will form letters and words.

From around 2 to 3 years, children start using their memory to recall images and although these may not be recognisable to others, they make perfect sense to the artist.

Will I start with paints or crayons?

There are no rules when it comes to learning how to draw and write. Some children show an interest earlier than others.

Some children seem to prefer the immediate effect of using a large brush against a sheet of paper. Others are quite happy to write on any surface.

Are there any safety risks?

Think about the writing materials you provide. Look for non-toxic materials that won’t pose a risk if they’re eaten.

Supervise your toddler in the early stages of using paints and crayons. They won’t know they’re not for eating. Gently direct your toddler on how and where to use them and avoid getting cross if they take a while to learn.

Talk with your toddler about where it is OK to draw. Save yourself the heartache and close the bedroom doors. Put crayons and paints away once your toddler has lost interest.

Ten tips to support learning to draw and write

  1. Make sure your toddler has access to crayons, pencils, paints and paper, easel and blackboard.
  2. Buy good quality crayons and pencils with a greater colour to wax ratio.
  3. Angle the blackboard/easel so your toddler can use it easily. This will help to develop skills in making a downward stroke which they’ll need when they learn to write.
  4. Encourage older siblings to share their writing equipment.
  5. Provide some smaller crayons and pieces of chalk — they’ll need to use a fingertip grip which helps with holding pencils.
  6. Let your toddler draw what they want to. Avoid directing them or criticising their attempts.
  7. Encourage your toddler to play with toys that need squeezing and threading such as playdoh and large beads. This will help to develop muscles in their hands, allowing them to control a pencil.
  8. Provide a range of colours with crayons, pencils and paints. Show your toddler the different colours and name them.
  9. Don’t overwhelm your toddler with choices to begin with. Start with one thick black crayon and build from there.
  10. Limit screen time — the current recommendations for toddlers under the age of 2 is no screen time, and from 2 to 5 years, no more than one hour per day.

When to seek help / When should I be worried?

  • If you suspect vision problems, like squinting, standing up close to the easel or paper, closing one eye while looking with the other, these are all signs that an eye check is needed.
  • A good starting point is your GP. If necessary, they can refer your toddler for further assessment.

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Last reviewed: March 2021

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