This is an article in the series “Drawing as it develops“, which includes a sequence of my daughter Amie’s drawings from 16 months onwards, as well as Tips for teaching drawing to a very young child and a growing bibliography.

In her book The Child as Thinker. The Development and Acquisition of Cognition in Childhood, Sara Meadows (University of Bristol) includes a handy review of the theories about children’s drawings. This is a brief summary of that text, along with references to some other research, and some remarks of my own.

  • First scribbles: motor-impulse shape-making

Children purposefully start making scribbles in the second year of life. This act is described by the lovely word “shapemaking”. The child is very interested in this shapemaking, and makes it more elaborate and deliberate as her motor-control improves: she starts to vary her lines , dots, circles, zigzags and places them more systematically.

See, for instance, the difference between Amie’s drawings at 16 months and at 18 months.

Still, however “shapely” and deliberate, the scientific community agrees on the idea that it is probably not a representational act driven by representational intentions. Instead, it is the result of a “motor impulse” (Arnheim). If very young children assert that they drew some thing, it most likely a post hoc and opportunist interpretation: something they drew happens to look like an airplane, a rabbit.

See, for instance, Amie’s short fling with drawing airplanes and naming them, and my difficulty with labeling it as “representational”.

  • Conventional drawing and “mistakes” in realism: tadpole humans

Once children do become aware of the representational possibility, their drawing skills may not be up to the task of achieving a realistic enough image (to adult eyes, at least). Their “mistakes” are characteristic, that is, repeated by the majority of children. The most famous example is the “tadpole” figure, studied in the eighties by Norman Freeman (see Bibliography).

Amie’s tadpoles 12 Jan 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Amie’s tadpoles at age 2 years 5 months (cf. blog entry)

The tadpole-human figure is one of the child’s first steps in conventional (read realistic) drawing. Freeman found that all children represent the human figure by a typical formula: that of a tadpole. It is the ubiquitous circle with some facial features representing the head as well as the body, and dangling lines for legs and, if any, arms.

The AAA Lab at Stanford has a neat, illustrated roundup of the stages of tadpole drawings, from “pre-tadpole” to “tadpole” to “transitional” to “conventional”.

  • Symbolism, not realism

The realism of these drawings may be insufficient in the eyes of the adult, but what about the child: perhaps she intends these drawings to be representational, yes, but not realistic?

This has been suggested by other researchers (Barrett and Light), who hypothesized that such formulaic drawings may be symbols, rather than attempts at realistic representation. Just like our traffic sign for a playground is symbolic (for the semioticians amongst you: more precisely iconic).

US traffic warning sign for playground

Not quite tadpoles, but not quite realistic either…

This view takes the realistic onus off children a little bit longer. Also, as far as I know (Amie isn’t there yet), children of that age are always in a hurry, and it makes sense that they want to put down quick but effective short-hand representations instead of meticulously realistic depictions.

And this symbolic approach pervades our cuture. In that respect Meadows comments that even young children’s drawings are influenced by the culture’s conventional representations. She mentions the square houses with the central door and the four square windows, the gabled roof and chimney, drawn by children and most adults whose houses don’t even remotely look like that. It makes sense that children would pick up our drawings conventions. How many of us have sat down with our child and (spontaneously or at their request) scribbled a smiley face (did you forget the eyebrows?) or the iconic cat?

  • The child’s body-image: do we look like tadpoles?

But, again, it depends on what you believe to be “realistic”. To the eye and the mind of the child, this may be realistic enough. So do children really see humans as tadpoles?

It’s not that simple. Researchers believe that the tadpole represents the child’s body image. Interestingly, one’s body image includes not just the visual shape of your body as your eyes see it, but also the mental image and even the feeling of it.

As for the child’s visual perception of her body, the Researchers at the AAA Lab point out that when children (or adults for that matter) look down at their own bodies, they see their arms coming out of their head. So that’s what they draw. And

because children assimilate their environment to what they see and know about themselves, they will draw all humans and animals in this tadpole manner. This implies that children are more perceptually driven in their drawings from the way they see themselves and not from the way they see their environment. As they slowly accommodate what they see in their environment to what they know about themselves, this perception will change.

Two tests of this hypothesis are

  1. that children first get better at drawing animals – which they see and regard as quite different from themselves – than at drawing humans
  2. that they start to get better at drawing other humans before they get better at drawing their own bodies
  • What is “distorted”?

Concluding, however, that the child has a “distorted” body-image would be wrong, writes Freeman. Not because there is no distortion (there most certainly is, if you’re a stickler for realism). Rather, the distortion stems from the child’s inadequate tools for drawing.

  1. She gets distracted, doesn’t have easy access to her mental image.
  2. She is even physically not up to the task, her motor-control is not fine enough yet and inexperienced.
  3. She does not yet master the complexity of planning, positioning and aligning all the elements of the figure.
  4. Her “vocabulary” of forms is limited to circles, long and short lines, some curves and corners.
  5. She has problems with occlusion (when a closer object partially hides an object further away), scaling, depth and perspective.
  6. She can’t yet grapple with decisions of how to “break up” an image to begin with: why for instance segment a limb at these joints (shoulder, elbow) and not those (wrist, finger joints)? Is it best first to “outline” a figure, or to begin with segments which then get put together? Where to begin?
  • The child proceeds to draw

It has been pointed out that children often start near the top of the paper and move down from left to right.

This may explain why most children start their drawings of people with the head. Tadpoles are serially put down on paper in this order:

  1. head and facial features, with more importance given to eyes and mouth than to the nose
  2. legs
  3. arms (if any)
  4. in later stages, when a body is drawn as well, the arms go onto the larger part, which could be the head or the body

Freeman also found a tendency to something called “end-anchoring” in children’s drawing. The last items they draw are often recalled and dealt with better, and more conspicuously placed, than intermediate items in the series. Thus children focus on the head first and then on the legs, and give less attention to the torso and the arms, or they skip these altogether.

But because they are putting down every element sequentially, without sufficiently planning ahead, children often run out of space. Then the last element gets squeezed and distorted.

  • Interpretation, experience and the role of education

Drawing gets better with experience, we all know that. The child is inexperienced, to say the least. She has less motor-control, less tools, a smaller array of shapes, etc. It is now generally accepted that inadequacies in children’s drawings are the results of these rather than of conceptual limitations. Here education can help.

But educators need to be careful about what and how they teach.

The child may just prefer to do a particular kind of drawing. And, as with all representation – whether in art or science – her decision to draw this and to leave out the other is influenced by her knowledge of the object and her interpretation of what about it is important.

The child’s drawings are representations of how she sees the world and herself (the use of drawings in child psychotherapy and psychiatry are well accepted). It would be a pity to bury and finally even suppress this information by pushing adult, conventional intepretations, standards of realism, and even the expectations of realism.

  • More on the tadpole figure in Children’s Drawings of the Human Figure by Maureen V. Cox – some parts of the relevant chapter are available via Google Book Search.
  • Comments? You can leave them here.

UPDATE: Want to see Amie’s tadpoles, which she started drawing at 2 years and 4 months?

One thought on “A. Children’s Tadpole Drawings: Some Theory

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