Seeing the bigger picture

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Drawing is as vital for child development as play and talk, argue two early years specialists. Mary Jane Drummond applauds their vision

Making Sense of Children's Drawings

By Angela Anning and Kathy Ring

Open University Press pound;16.99

Long, long ago, when I was an infant teacher, my colleagues and I greeted rainy playtimes with apprehension and loathing. How wrong we were. For, as Angela Anning and Kathy Ring explain, indoor breaks offer children the time and space they need for spontaneous, intense, interactive drawing, "that under-valued, under-researched and misunderstood activity". In Anning and Ring, young children's drawing has found two powerful advocates; they confidently argue, and demonstrate, that drawing is a way of making sense of the world, as important in children's lives as movement, play and talk.

Through their drawings, children show us their understanding of the world, and their places and relations within it. Drawings are the "spaces" where children tell themselves - and anyone else who chooses to look - intricate, personal, adventurous stories. Furthermore, Anning and Ring argue, as we have come to understand more about the importance of narrative in learning, we cannot ignore the narratives that children compose for themselves in dramatic play, movement, song, speech, drawings and paintings.

The rigid approach to communication taken by our current guidance documents and curriculum frameworks, which prioritise early reading and writing, ignores the multiple forms of expression and communication employed by children.

To make their case, Anning and Rich present the findings of a three-year research project in which they followed seven children, aged three to five, collecting data from home and school for one month each year. Before we read the accounts of four of these children, we are taken on a trot round socio-cultural theory, noting the work of Barbara Rogoff, Carol Dweck, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, and reminded of the key concept of "mastery": the idea that many children learn to think of themselves as people who "can", while others with a "helpless" orientation learn to think that they "can't". Then on to a potted history of infant school art, which evokes memories of Viking longships created from cardboard and Art Straws, autumn friezes and scrunched-up tissue paper. The tone of this brief section is restrained; we see the authorial curled lip, rather than a full-frontal attack, but the message is plain: all is not well, and there's worse to come.

The children's stories contain alarming similarities. Luke is the youngest of the four, aged three at the start of the project. His exuberant fantasy play, in which he escapes a ferocious crocodile by "rowing" a baby bath with coat hangers across the living room floor, is matched by his energetic action drawings, including one of a giant strawberry devouring a small boy.

We follow Luke through two rather limiting years in a family centre, into reception class, where he is one of the lucky ones. His teacher provides a table, where children draw whatever they want, and talk as they work together. Luke makes the most of this, and when the researcher arrives, he proudly presents her with his drawing of a "Machine For Making Bread", saying, "You'll love this".

We meet the oldest child in the study, Lianne, when she is five and in reception. For the moment, all is well. We see her action drawing of Michael Rosen's much-loved story, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and get the impression that her teacher is doing everything right. At home, too, Lianne is engaged in her chosen activities, specialising in dramatic play: a mastery learner in many dimensions. But her luck runs out upon entering Year 1, where, in spite of a weekly art lesson (teacher-directed, whole-class activity), no evidence of work is collected during the research period. "Choosing" is limited to 30 minutes a week (after spelling, on Friday afternoon) and drawing is relegated to rainy playtimes. (We have already seen how the two other children, Holly and Simon, both passionate with their pencils, have realised that this is the only time and space where they can express their interests and concerns.) At the age of seven, Lianne is still drawing copiously at home (weddings, speech bubbles, tears of joy), but her school drawings are all modelled by the adults supervising her Year 2 class, which has been streamed in preparation for Sats coaching.

After the case studies, Anning and Ring turn to "implications": for children, parents and educators. They reiterate the importance for children's development of the recognition of drawing "in its own right", rather than as a precursor of writing or visual realism, which emphasises accuracy and imposes a formulaic template on children's personal and aesthetic growth.

For teachers and other educators, they demand a radical review of training programmes, which marginalise all but the narrowly conceived standards designed by the Teacher Training Agency and "policed by Ofsted". They point an accusing finger at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidance for the foundation stage, which categorises drawing as a stepping stone on the way to mark-making and writing. They join the growing consensus among early years specialists that the boundary between the foundation stage and key stage 1 should be softened, so that five and six-year-olds in England, like those in Wales and all over Europe, can work with a less rigid timetable and a more nourishing curriculum.

In all this there is, again, a certain restraint. The arguments are clear and convincing, but the authors are a little timid. I was hoping for a touch of righteous anger, rather than considered composure. In a terrific final paragraph, however, Anning and Ring do get passionate. "Our children deserve better than this," is their thunderous conclusion. Will this book have its desired effect? In particular, will we see politicians and policy-makers having "the strength and humility to admit where they got some things wrong in early childhood education"? If we do, as I profoundly hope we do, this book will certainly have played a part in that transformation.

Mary Jane Drummond is a former lecturer in education at Cambridge University. She is co-author, with Susan Hart and Annabelle Dixon, of Learning Without Limits (OUPress, pound;20.99)

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