Why Toddlers' Activities Need to Include Scribbling

By Andrea L. Mack

One day when my back was turned, my 2-year-old daughter drew colored pencil swirls all over the wall. I tried to remind her that we color on paper, not walls. She just pointed happily to her masterpiece and said, "Dolphin."

Scribbles may seem meaningless to parents, but to your child, scribbling is an important toddler learning activity. Some children are so excited by making marks, they can't seem to get enough. On the other hand, it's hard for a parent to appreciate a work of art that means a new paint job for the kitchen. Keep your cool by remembering why your toddler needs to scribble and its function in young child development stages:

  1. Fine motor control. Giving your toddler the chance to use markers and crayons helps her develop the finger control she needs later to use a fork, write with a pencil or brush her teeth.
  2. Independence. A toddler's world is full of things she isn't allowed to do and things she shouldn't touch. With a box of crayons and some paper, she is free to choose which colors, what kind of marks (dots or lines, fast or slow) and where to put her marks on the page. When she is finished with this toddler activity, she has made it by herself. The freedom to make choices and create something on her own helps develop independent thinking.
  3. Early literacy. The squiggles and lines your toddler makes now eventually become more recognizable shapes and letters later. As scribbling develops, your child will learn that marks on the page stand for objects in the world (like my daughter's "dolphin"). Knowing that marks and lines can represent things is an early step on the way to learning to read and write and in toddler language development.
  4. Emotional outlet. Artists often use painting or drawing to express their emotions. Your toddler may enjoy this, too. Toddlers meet with many frustrations in the course of a day. Your child may not be able to button a shirt or stack blocks into a tall tower or to use words you can understand. The movements and energy she uses to draw let out some of the feelings that build up from her frustration.

Tips to Encourage Scribbling as Part of Your Toddler's Activities

Make some time for your toddler to draw every day. Set aside an area just for drawing, such as the kitchen table, and cover it with an inexpensive, washable tablecloth. That way, it won't matter so much if some marks don't stay on the paper.

Provide plenty of paper. Old cereal boxes, envelopes, and the backs of papers you are tossing out all are good drawing surfaces. Tape a giant sheet of paper (newsprint or wrapping paper) to the wall or the door of the refrigerator. Or tie some pages together to make a special scribbling book. Don't worry about trying to identify what your toddler is making.

Asking a lot of questions about the drawing can put a damper on her fun. Remember, it is the process of drawing that has the most benefit for toddlers, not the end result.

If your child seems to want comments, mention the colors used, or the "nice zigzag lines." Or say, "Tell me about your picture."

Try different kinds of drawing tools. Show your toddler how to scribble with a bar of soap on a damp window. Let her draw on the sidewalk with colored chalk or a pail of water and a sponge. Using a stick or a shovel in a sandbox can be fun. Teaching her to experiment will boost the development of creative thinking.


Andrea L. Mack, PhD, is a researcher and freelance writer in Mississauga, Ontario.