Art and Mark-Making as the First Language of Children

Written by Lark Keeler, Saint Andrew’s Lower School Visual Art Instructor and Florida Art Education Association, President-Elect

The arts have been referred to as “children’s first language” because even before they can speak, children express their thoughts and ideas through art, movement, music, and dramatic play.

The arts inspire children to use their imagination and engage with all of their senses. As parents, we introduce our children to the arts by rocking babies to the beat of a song, singing lullabies, tracing and printing little hands in fingerpaint, and by reading stories using dramatic voices. Early childhood provides such a richness of opportunities for children to grow and explore the arts. From first marks with an extra thick crayon to singing and moving to, “Itsy, Bitsy Spider,” arts experiences help prepare children for future cognitive thinking and developmental skills.

Children have a desire to make marks. Parents may know all too well, after discovering caveman like scribbles on hallway walls from creative toddlers. Built into each of us is a desire and delight when making marks that are uniquely our own. Mark-making (scribble) gives children the chance to practice fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. It is in this very important art experience in which the seeds of handwriting are first planted. John Matthews wrote in, The Art of Childhood and Adolescence: The Construction of Meaning, “Scribbles are products of a systematic investigation, rather than haphazard actions.”  Experimentation and investigation, discovery and curiosity take place in the midst of crayon loops, swirls, zigzags, and shapes.

Sensory, verbal, and cognitive learning are engaged when a child is immersed in an art experience. Naturally deep thinkers, children do not always have the accessibility of words, to express what can be said through the arts. We see this development of investigation and ideation in action when children give us “tours” of their drawings. Children have a terrific sense of narrative when making meaning of their marks, giving story to the art that flows so freely from their fingers. It is opportunities like these that build skills for reading, writing, and imagination.  

Miriam Flaherty, Senior Director of Education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts says, “The arts are about what happens when we explore interactions between people, exploring customs and traditions. “Flaherty believes that, “The arts are the basis for a lot of future learning for children. It’s a firm foundation. Everything we want a child to be able to do we can find in the four art forms.”  

Whether it is the feel of the materials on the surface of the paper, the urge to express a story or feeling, or investigating an object by looking closely and drawing what they see, children use the tools of mark making to access making meaning and making sense of their world in a variety of ways. It is this groundwork that supplies children with skills to best approach problem solving, critical thinking, and expression of thought as they progress through academic learning.

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A non-profit, independent, co-educational school for grades Pre-K - 12, Saint Andrew's School is a private day and boarding school located in Boca Raton, educating the best students from across Palm Beach County, Florida, the United States, and throughout the world in the Episcopal tradition.
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