Qualitative Research: Children’s Art Development
Katie Guckien
University of Missouri


Qualitative Research: Children’s Art Development
Just as children develop through stages of cognitive and psychosocial
development, children also develop through stages of art development. “It is very
important for art teachers” (and homeroom teachers, I might add) “to understand how
children develop artistically. This kind of knowledge is essential for choosing ageappropriate teaching strategies and content for the units and lessons that the [art] teacher

develops.” (Luehrman & Unrath, 2006, p. 71). For this paper I asked a local 5th grade (10
years old) student to draw an outdoor scene and then tell me about what she drew.
Through carefully analyzing the drawing itself and the story that she provided, I was able
to assess her artistic development. In this paper I detail the findings, and share how these
findings can impact how I approach teaching.

The method of this study was simple and open. I had the opportunity to visit an
after-school care program and was able to choose from about 30, Kindergarten through
fifth grade students for this paper. I ultimately chose a fifth grade girl, Kendra, because
she was working by herself, so I figured she would be open to completing a task for me.
She was given the opportunity to draw an outdoor scene and knew immediately that she
wanted to draw a cat. Crayons, pencils, colored pencils, markers, and pens were all
available to Kendra, but she chose to stick with a pencil drawing. I did not need to guide
Kendra beyond that, she was very independent and notified me when she finished her
drawing. I asked her to tell me about her drawing and asked a couple of probing



questions to get as much information about her drawing as possible. In the end, I thanked
her for her time and effort and she was happy to help.

In Kendra’s drawing you see a cat staring at you, a table with food on it and an
outdoor backdrop (see figure 1). When I asked Kendra to describe her drawing she
described it very literally, stating, “it’s a cat out in the backyard”. I then asked her what
the object on the left-hand side was and she replied, annoyingly, “a table with food on
it… and a drink.” I feel as though it is important to question the reasoning behind her
seemingly annoyed demeanor. Did she seem annoyed because she knew her illustration
was realistic enough that it didn’t need an explanation? Was she insulted by my
questioning because it’s very important in her stage of development to realistically
portray an object and questioning it is a sign that her illustration isn’t realistic?
Unfortunately these are questions I can’t answer with the small amount of time I spent
with Kendra and small amount of research I have on the topic.
After analyzing Kendra’s drawing and thinking about her description as well, I
felt as though she falls in the stage of dawning realism. The stages are taken from Viktor
Lowenfeld, a well revered art education professor and author of Creative and Mental
Growth, a book detailing the six stages of art development that are often referred back to
in many other research articles on the topic.
Dawning realism is a stage typically found in students aged nine to eleven, and a
main development in this age group is the importance of perspective and space in a
drawing. Lowenfeld (1947) details that the use of a single base line starts to disappear



and instead things are drawn on different levels and in different perspectives. You can see
in Kendra’s drawing that the table and cat are drawn in one perspective, as the
foreground, drawn large and in the bottom part of the picture. The fence, tree, grass, and
sky are in the background of the picture, drawn as a different perspective at the top of the
page. Each item in the illustration is drawn separately from each other, with the cat being
very detailed, the table and food being simple, and the background being detailed but
subtle. This is a very important development when you’re looking to create a more
realistic illustration, which is also a shift you start to see in this stage of development.
Drawing becomes less about making meaning by symbols and more of an artistic process
that needs to look “right”.

I believe that Kendra is very typical in her artistic development. I worry, however,
that she will continue with this belief that art is only good is if it is realistic and
eventually she may start to dislike art because someone else can draw something more
realistic than her and to her that means that she’s not ‘good enough’ at art. This is
common to see in students and I have even seen this happen in myself so I would never
blame Kendra if she came to this, but as a teacher I hope to avoid this thought process.
The way that Kendra talked about her illustration to me showed that she felt as
though her illustration didn’t need any explanation because it was obvious what was in it,
so she already appears to be losing her sense of creativity in the way that she didn’t
develop a story behind her drawing. Even if the drawing was very obviously a cat, what
is actually happening in the illustration? What type of cat is it? Is it a cat you know? Is it



a cat from your imagination? Why is there food on the table? Perhaps it is my fault
because I didn’t ask these questions and maybe that’s part of the reason why students do
lose their sense of creativity in storytelling, because they’re never asked to do so. As a
teacher I plan to ask those questions, make my students think about what their drawing is
about beyond the literal interpretation, or ask questions like these when reading books or
learning a new concept, just to keep their creative brains working.
Judith Burton (1980) explored the beginnings of artistic language with a five year
old and described how even scribbles have meaning for kids. She specifically wrote about
a student who painted a racecar and told a story about his racecar with visual, body, and
motor descriptions, all with excitement and a great sense of imagination. Although I am
sure that Kendra was there at some point in her artistic development, I wish that students
felt as if it were still okay for them to act this way with their artistic creations even when
they’re making pictures that are very realistic. Comparing the drawings and stories from
the students in my first grade classroom to the drawing and story Kendra provided me
with, is both exciting and scary. I love to see how far a student comes in their realistic
abilities, but it’s sad to see how quickly students’ desire to creatively think of a story to
go along with their drawing declines.
I believe that typical schooling is what causes students do lose that sense of
creativity, because they’re asked to do so much technical work and not given the
opportunity to do more creative work when creative minds are what we need in our
future! Daniel Pink proves this to us in his book A Whole New Mind (2005) when he lists
all of the ways that right-brained jobs are becoming more in demand than left-brained
jobs. “Graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one.” “Since 1970, the



United States has 30 percent more people earning a living as writers and 50 percent more
earning a living by composing or performing music.” (p. 55) If these are the jobs that are
in demand right now, why are we still convincing our students that thinking logically and
suppressing your creative spirit is what needs to be done in school? As a teacher it is my
duty to not perpetuate the mindset that things are to be done a certain way, for the correct
answer, and with little creativity.
As the regular classroom teacher I will be that teacher who encourages her
students to think outside of the box. Although I will always welcome the realistic
creations in my classroom, I want to be sure to draw attention to all creations, realistic
and abstract. There will be times where I will specifically challenge my students to create
something that isn’t conventionally beautiful, and I will always encourage stories in my
classroom. I want students to feel like they can share their wonders and creations in my
classroom and I want to encourage creative thinking in all ways by offering choice in the
classroom. Obviously there are some things that need to be taught and done, but there’s
always room for a little creativity in the lesson plan, and I will teach believing that.
My research is in no way conclusive of how every student progresses or
approaches the artistic process. All students are different and I only examined one
student’s process. What is important is that, through my work with Kendra, I have started
to examine the significance of art in the classroom and started to understand the stages
my students will go through during their schooling. I will definitely need to do more
research with students of different ages, ethnicities, genders, etc. to get a richer
understanding and examine all the ways I can encourage growth in my classroom.


Burton, J. M. (1980, October). The first visual symbols. School Arts, 80(2), 60-65.
Lowenfeld, V., Brittan, W. L. (1947). Creative and Mental Growth (4th edition). New
York: The Macmillan Company.
Luehrman, M., Unrath, K. (2006). Making theories of children’s artistic development
meaningful for preservice teachers. Art Education, 66-72.
Pink, D. H. (2005). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New
York, NY: the Penguin Group.


Figure 1: Kendra’s drawing of a cat in the backyard