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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Drawing is the first language

by Bob Steele

"We try to write a story every day. Sometimes we start with the drawing, and the story evolves to match it. Other times, the story comes first, and the drawing complements the words." – primary teacher, Likely

"My seven-year-old daughter came home from school complaining of a stomachache. After a wee cuddle, she said, ‘I think I need to do some art. Do you ever feel sick, Mom, when you haven’t done any art for a long time?’ She proceeded to her room, created a drawing or two, and regained her sense of self and good health." – parent, Cranbrook

Each child carries within a potential language of graphic imagery. Recognizing it and giving it its due is the most urgent reform needed in the home/school curriculum today. For children, drawing is not only an art medium; it is a language medium. In the long run, verbal literacy is recognized as the most important language children require to become educated, but drawing is the language nature has given them to ensure mental development in the meantime.

Spontaneous language use is essential for mental development, but in the early years, when language is especially critical, words cannot be used spontaneously except for oral communication. The reason is perfectly understandable: drawing is uncoded and literacy is coded. Parents and teachers don’t need to teach drawing; they need only motivate it. Literacy, on the other hand, must be taught throughout the years of schooling. And yet studying children’s drawings has convinced me that children have much to say of greater complexity, subtlety, and metaphoric power than you would think from their oral expressions. Writing is still in the future. When drawing is a daily experience (the daily draw) this critically important potential is fully realized.

The Drawing Network advocates three languages of decisive usefulness in the home/ school curriculum. Words are clearly fundamental and if only one language were possible, it would have to be literacy. We conceptualize a second language as a drawing on the page with no visible words, although words always play a role as interior monologue and dialogue with parent or teacher. A third language is words and drawings combined on the page and then uncoded drawing is brought into tandem with coded literacy, a double articulation to enrich expression and communication. A more vital contribution is made to mental development, and literacy, too, gains.

Why then do we choose drawing for special attention? There are three reasons. The first is its lack of code. The second is the economy of learning—a child can produce 10 line drawings in the time required for one painting. The third is the degree of specificity drawing permits. The strength of music, dance, and poetry is in the level of abstractness they offer. Drawing retains a level of abstractness but is immediate, specific, and concrete. When a child makes a drawing of "mother" an existing person is the subject. Creating aesthetic energy by responding to everyday experiences is the Zen of drawing. But we can say that a word too is specific, concrete, and abstract. It is this relationship that helps make drawing the ideal companion of literacy, the one coded, the other, uncoded.

But is drawing really a language, truly and literally? The answer is yes. Every drawing I have studied fulfills the following definition: "a symbol system, through which perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are articulated, expressed, and communicated." Moreover, the parallel with literacy becomes even more convincing when you find the equivalents of vocabulary and syntax. In drawing graphic units called schemata (vocabulary) are used to create meaning through empathic form (syntax). This has led us to characterize drawing as the advance guard of literacy and the most useful medium for young children who unselfconsciously feel an inner urge to tackle complex and deeply felt subject matters. And where drawing leads, literacy soon follows!

Most primary teachers use drawing in their teaching, but we should be especially concerned about children in the two years prior to Kindergarten. For most, it means two critically important years without drawing. And moving beyond primary, how many intermediate and middle-school children get to draw in the context of the school curriculum? Drawing in those later years still has the power to contribute to mental development and literacy.

The Drawing Network strategy has three requirements: 1) a 15- or 20-minute opportunity daily for spontaneous drawing—think of scheduled piano practice, 2) drawing throughout the home/school curriculum in social studies, science, language arts, and visual arts when drawing contributes to learning, 3) a supervising parent, teacher, or older sibling present to motivate themes and respond to finished products. It is those conversations that enhance literacy.

You have noticed that when children draw they show the concentration and identification with subject matter we refer to as empathy. The finished drawing reveals this as aesthetic energy, by which I mean formal relationships, and structural coherence. Sometimes this reaches the near-perfection of "work of art." Aesthetic energy is not unknown when children use words but it is much rarer, again, because of the codes of literacy. Aesthetic energy and work of art are the product of the perfect integration of content, form, and technique (or performance). They tell us that intellectual development, mental health and learning have been enhanced.

We want children to grow up experiencing empathy for other people, other races, other cultures. We want children to grow up with empathy for natural phenomena, the entire spectrum of living things and the environments they depend on. We want children to acquire literacy with as much ease as possible and, indeed, with as much fun and pleasure. If we want these things, as parents, we will launch a "daily draw," and as teachers use drawing-as-language throughout the curriculum.

The daily draw offers another advantage. I used the example of piano practice, but parents quite properly tend to insist on routine and regularity and leave the rest to the piano teacher and the willing or unwilling student. Parents and teachers have a different role in the daily draw. Without the supervision and daily involvement of a caring adult, spontaneous drawing simply withers on the vine. Psychologists tell us that bonding is the key to mental health. I can think of no better way of bringing about bonding than the daily-draw routine. Children draw important themes more easily than they talk about them. Once the drawing is finished, conversations follow that bring child and caring adult together in an ambience of trust and affection. Bonding is a natural outcome.

The Drawing Network is now 15 years old. We stopped publishing newsletters in favour of writing and distributing pamphlets. There is no charge, but we appreciate a small donation for printing and mailing. If you are interested, please contact us and specify your area(s) of interest. Cheques should be made payable to University of British Columbia.

Bob Steele is an associate professor (Emeritus), UBC, and author of Draw Me A Story, 1998, Portage & Main Press, Winnipeg. drawnet@interchange.ubc.ca.

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