Why Not Draw For A Child?

When we draw, mold, paint, or even build a sandcastle for our toddler, we can discourage her from doing those things herself. If she can’t do as well as mommy or daddy, why bother? The unfortunate result of this is that our children disengage from an activity that might have provided a creative outlet. I witnessed vivid proof of this theory several years ago…

My husband and I brought our three-year-old daughter to his company’s family picnic at the park. One of the children’s activities was to decorate T-shirts with tubes of paint.  My daughter was given a white T-shirt and we sat at the picnic table together. I was utterly amazed when all the parents began showing their children how they should design a T-shirt by painting it themselves. There was not one parent who would trust a child to decorate his own T-shirt; the adults completely dominated. “Let’s put a sun over here. And now I’ll write your name.” Was it because it was a T-shirt and not just a piece of paper? Was a T-shirt too valuable to leave in the hands of a three-, four-, five-, six- and even seven-year-old? Would the child’s creation not be ‘good enough?’

The end result of this spontaneous experiment was illuminating. The T-shirts were hung out to dry in a tree. None of the children showed the slightest interest in the finished T-shirts. The parents retrieved them after they had dried, but the children could not have cared less. They had contributed nothing to the shirts and felt no ownership.

Meanwhile, my daughter sat completely absorbed as she took a tube of paint and squeezed it to make a short vertical drip on her T-shirt. Young children are more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design. She chose another color and made another line on her shirt. Immersed in this process, she made one line after another, each with a different tube of paint.

She and I lingered, long after the other children, who had watched their parents paint designs on T-shirts, had left the table. There were just a few latecomers left. When my daughter finally finished she admired her work and said thoughtfully, “I’m an artist.”  “Yes, you are,” I replied. A parent across from us smiled at me in a conspiratorial and slightly demeaning way.

We hung the T-shirt up to dry and my daughter wanted to check on it twenty minutes later. At the end of the company picnic, she proudly took it home.

This event was a profound lesson for me, and it reinvigorated my belief that children are best left to direct their artistic endeavors. There is little reason for a child to be involved in an art project if it’s not produced by the child. When we well-meaningly demonstrate our own creative talents for our toddlers we risk making them feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested. Our children need to be trusted to participate, not only in art projects but in all the activities they encounter, to the furthest extent of their capabilities.

Jackie shared her success:

“Thank you for encouraging me to refrain from helping my very particular and easily frustrated daughter with her drawings. She just turned 3 and drew this dog this morning- and it’s amazing! So realistic and not a simple, “kiddy” style dog at all.”

why not draw for a child Jackie Asvig
You might ask, “What’s wrong with showing my child how to correctly use a paintbrush?” Well, it shortcuts her exploration, thus limiting her creativity, and ( if she is often shown how to play “correctly”) it may eventually erode her trust in herself,  her desire to be an active explorer, and her willingness and ability to work things out for herself. Children quickly come to look to adults to show them or tell them “the right way to play,” and even to do it for them.
 – Lisa Sunbury,”What Is Play?

More in Don’t Move the Muffin Tins by renowned educator Bev Bos


(Noelle and Jackie, thank you for allowing me to share your beautiful photos!)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I’ve come here as I really need advice! I think what you say above is spot on, but wondered what I can do when it seems the damage is already done? Whenever I get crayons/pencils out for my 2yo daughter she says “don’t want to draw, I’m not good at it.” It breaks my heart! How can I encourage her to try drawing again?

    1. Ask her “If you were good at it, what would you draw? What colors would you use? What would it look like? Can you show me?”

    2. avatar Kristin Mullen says:

      Something I have found in early childhood is the frustration with fine muscle control may be too much for her. Use blank pieces of paper where you do not have to stay in the line. Give her markers or paint and glue and as she explores and becomes confident in her creative side she may add crayons. For fine muscle control play with play doh, pick up small stones, string beads, etc

  2. Illuminating. So insightful. Thank you for sharing. I am learning so much from your blog and stories.

  3. My daughter always asks me to draw something or mold the play doh into something. I’ll say, why don’t you try but she wants me to do it. How do I get her to do it?

    1. I am experiencing the same thing with my 2.5 year old son. He wants daddy to draw a truck or a train because his father has some artistic talent so his drawings look more realistic. My son draws too, but always asks us to draw specific objects. How should we approach this to encourage our son?

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