Why Is Early-Life Scribbling Important?

The Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts has listed these as the steps in writing development:

  • Drawing
  • Scribbling
  • Producing letter-like forms
  • Writing letter sequences or strings
  • Spelling phonetically
  • Spelling conventionally

Crayola developed washable markers/crayons in the late 1980s for, essentially, this reason: the homes of many people who contribute to a child’s upbringing (parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc.) were consistently awash in scribbles on the walls and other available surfaces.

The scribbling stage is important for several reasons: notably, it marks the beginning of control of fine motor skills. When they are developmentally ready (it varies by child), they will begin to understand that the motion of their arms has some relation back to what they’re seeing on the paper. This creates a joy around the process for them – they now have control over something they didn’t know about before.

There are typically thought to be five stages of scribbling, attached to age periods (although again, each child is different):

  • Random scribbling (15 months to 2.5 years)
  • Controlled scribbling (2 years to 3 years)
  • Lines and patterns (2.5 years to 3.5 years)
  • Pictures of Objects/People (3 years to 5 years)
  • Letter and Word Practice (3 years to 5 years)

There’s a natural progression from randomly putting lines on paper – and realizing your control of the process – up through a more organized thought process and finally, to thinking about letters and how letters are organized. The five steps represent a sort of “A-ha!” moment for a child in the early stages of literacy development: : letters make up words, words are how we talk and express ourselves, and writing is a way to share those words with others.

Scribbling is also a valuable emotional asset. As any parent of a two-year-old can tell you, young children often run into daily challenges where they can’t communicate exactly what they’re feeling. Drawing and scribbling can sometimes help them make sense of their emotions – and even convey it to their parents/caregivers.

If you understand the contextual importance of scribbling now, the next logical question would be: What can you do to foster/promote it? Here are a few tips:

  • Model writing: Some think the idea of writing is a lost art form as technology advances (think about a standard work e-mail vs. a hand-written letter). But as an adult, you still have numerous opportunities every day to model writing, from a grocery list to a note for your spouse to anything else. Show your children it’s important.
  • Don’t attempt to control the scribbling at all: Let them use their hands, their arms, and do things at their own pace.
  • Ask guided questions: “Tell me about your drawing” or “What is this story about?”
  • Be positive: “That looks great” and “I’m so proud of you,” etc.
  • Guided captions: As they draw a picture and tell you about it, offer to help them write a small caption underneath that describes the picture. They will be proud of working together and begin to understand that your words (the caption) are helping to give meaning to their work. Storytelling is an important part of early literacy, and helps develop expressive and receptive language skills.
  • Set aside time for scribbling frequently: It’s a crucial step in the development of writing and literacy, even if it seems like random lines on a page. So make time for it.

The overall aspect to remember here is this: toddlers first see the whole pattern (lines across a page), and only later can see separate words and letters. That’s how an infant brain processes the beginnings of writing – so it would be nearly impossible to simply dive right into letters and words.

Instead, stock up on non-toxic, washable crayons and markers, grab some paper (and tape for children too young to hold down the paper themselves), and get ready to listen to some great emergent “stories.”  Make sure you leave enough room on the refrigerator or an “art wall” to display your child’s masterpiece.  If you are excited about their work, they will be too!


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