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Toddler development: Learning how to draw and write

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Learning how to write and understand words is an essential life skill that starts in infancy and builds gradually during the preschool and primary years.
  • Most toddlers show an interest in making marks with crayons or pencils from around 2 years of age.
  • Children usually start off scribbling random vertical lines with no pattern or structure, and then progress to drawing circles, basic outlines and eventually letters and words.
  • Give your toddler non-toxic drawing materials that won't harm them if they're eaten.
  • Avoid colouring in or copying exercises in the early stages, and let them draw what they like — with drawing, it's not the end result that counts.

Why is learning to draw and write important?

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

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

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

Most toddlers show an interest in making marks on paper 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 may hold the crayon sideways or put it straight into their mouth. They may wave it around, holding it in their whole hand or use their fist to grab onto it.

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

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

Hand writing requires a complex set of skills that include:

Children do not develop these 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 that your toddler may be ready to draw is that your toddler seems interested. They may look for a crayon or pencil, hold it in their hand and make attempts at drawing. Gradually, they'll learn to control their hand movements better, 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 simple 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 limit their imagination. Let them draw what they like — with drawing, it's not the end result that counts. At this early stage, the most important goal is to have fun.

Computers and tablets have changed our traditional approach to writing. However, much of communication still relies on the ability to write words and create images to let other people know what we are thinking and feeling. This is why these skills are important.

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 — fat, round ones are often best for small hands. Crayons, colouring pencils, paints, chalk and even sticks poked into dirt are all good options.

Large sheets of paper and cardboard stuck to a wall are a great choice. Drawing on these requires movements from the large muscle groups as well as the fine motor. Balance and depth perception are also supported when your child draws while standing up.

Handwriting builds over time. Your child may start scribbling random vertical lines with no pattern or structure. This will progress to drawing circles and then basic outlines. Eventually they will learn to form letters and words.

From about 2 to 3 years old, children start to recreate images from memory. Although these may not be recognisable to others, they make perfect sense to the child. It may be interesting to ask your child about their drawings.

Should my child 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, while others are quite happy to write on any surface. If you are worried about making a mess in your home, you can paint in an outdoor space, such as on your balcony, in your garden or at a public park.

Are there any safety risks?

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

Supervise your toddler in the early stages of using paints and crayons. Children won't know they're not for eating and may try to taste them. Gently direct your toddler on how and where to use them, and avoid getting angry at them while they learn.

Talk with your toddler about where it is okay to draw and where it's not allowed, for example, on walls or furniture. It's a good idea to close the doors of rooms where you do not want your toddler to take drawing materials. Put crayons and paints away once your toddler has lost interest to prevent accidents.

Ten tips to support learning to draw and write

Learning to draw and write is a normal part of child development. There are things you can do to encourage and support your child in this learning process.

  1. Make sure your toddler has access to drawing materials, such as:
    • paper, an easel, whiteboard or blackboard
    • crayons
    • pencils
    • paints
    • chalk
  2. Buy good quality crayons and pencils with a greater colour to wax ratio.
  3. Angle the whiteboard, blackboard or easel so your toddler can use it easily. This will help to develop skills, for example, making a downward stroke which they'll need when they learn to write.
  4. Encourage older siblings to share their drawing materials.
  5. Provide some smaller crayons and pieces of chalk — this will encourage your toddler to use a tripod grip, which helps with holding pencils.
  6. Let your toddler draw what they want to. Avoid directing them too much 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 different coloured drawing implements. 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

If you are worried that your child has a vision problem see your GP or optometrist for a vision check. Signs of a vision problem may include:

  • squinting
  • standing up close to the easel or paper
  • closing one eye while looking with the other

If you are worried that your child has a motor problem (such as problems holding a crayon, or coordinating contact between a pencil and the page), or if your child is bothered or frustrated by not being able to draw, ask your child's doctor if they might benefit from occupational therapy (OT).

Resources and support

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Last reviewed: May 2023

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