What we can learn from children's drawings of themselves

Published on Tuesday, 22 October 2019
Last updated on Thursday, 01 October 2020

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One of the most consistent pictures children draw is of their family and themselves, with a pet and their house, too. Interestingly, how children draw themselves also alters depending on who sees it.

According to a study from researchers at the University of Chichester published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, children's expressive drawings of themselves vary depending on their audience and their familiarity with them. This is significant as it's children's drawings that give us an insight into how they feel and what underlying issues and talents might also be present.

Drawing conclusions

As pointed out by the University of Chichester, children's drawings are often used in clinical, forensic, education and therapeutic situations to help gather information and to supplement verbal communication, which is one of the reasons the study was undertaken in the first place.

Researchers worked with 175 children aged eight and nine (85 boys and 90 girls), who were arranged in seven groups. Six had specified varied audience types such as professionals like a policeman and teacher in circumstances where they were both familiar to the child and not at all. One group also had no specified audience.

All children were asked to draw three pictures of themselves, one as a baseline, one happy, and one sad. The key results were as follows:

  • Children's drawings of themselves were more expressive when the audience is familiar to the child.
  • Overall girls drew themselves more expressively than boys.
  • Boys and girls performed differently in happy and sad drawings for the familiar and unfamiliar policeman groups – girls were more expressive than boys in happy drawings with a policeman they knew, whereas boys were more expressive than girls in sad drawings when the policeman was unfamiliar.

While the researchers believe that further studies are required, they also suggest that their findings could be used as the basis for future investigations around other professional and personal interactions such as between a doctor and their patient.

"This current study builds on the findings of previous studies carried out by our team. Its findings have implications for the use of children's drawings by professionals as a means to supplement and improve verbal communication," says Dr. Esther Burkitt, Reader in Development Psychology at the University of Chichester.

"Being aware that children may draw emotions differently for different professional groups may help practitioners to better understand what a child feels about the topics being drawn. This awareness could provide the basis of a discussion with the child about why they drew certain information for certain people. Our findings indicate that it matters for which profession children think they are drawing themselves, and whether they are familiar with a member of that profession."

What else children's self-portraits can tell us

Around the age of six is when the stick figures featured in children's everyday drawings start to have real weight and value. Unlike adults who think on a deeper level about everything, children combine imagination with real life experiences and tend not to sensor their artworks too much. Because kids love to draw and do it often, their art is a method of physiological analysis that's readily available to all.

Here are some more insights into children’s drawings of themselves:

The family portrait

This can include a lot of telling information such as their relationship with their parents, how they feel at home and more. The way a child interprets their family can be identified in the details of their drawing. Researchers have found that children who draw themselves further away from their parents and much smaller in size are more likely to live in a chaotic home environment full of noise, crowding, clutter, and an overall lack of structure.

Interestingly, children that draw every family member with slightly different characteristics also show signs of advanced intelligence with an understanding that every person in their family is a unique individual. It's common for family members to be drawn at different sizes too, usually representing their age or role in the family.

Portraits of themselves

The way that a child draws themselves with pen and paper identifies how they feel about their own self and overall image. Insecurity and inner-conflict can often be identified in the details of a self-drawing. The size a child draws themselves as or shading certain body parts darker are signs a child might have an altered perspective on how they see themselves. Regularly drawing themselves with a sad expression may also mean they're experiencing some form of inner-conflict or external problems.

Tips for educators

When it comes to children's drawings of themselves in the early childhood setting here are a few tips:

  • Encourage self-portrait drawing – Art is a fantastic form of expression and great for building fine motor skills and creativity. In addition to drawing all kinds of objects and abstract pictures, encourage children to draw themselves and their families.
  • Ask children to explain their drawings – Sometimes it's not entirely clear what is being depicted, and it can be insightful to find out why they have drawn things in certain way. For example, they might be a lot smaller than other people in the artwork or have extra large eyes or other features.
  • Keep an eye on possible issues – Consistently using only black and red markers (which can indicate depression and anger/violence) or always drawing themselves either with a sad expression, in a negative way or removed from their family and other people, can be signs that something is wrong. It's not always the case of course, but if the drawing behaviour continues it could be worth mentioning to other educators and the child's parents.

Thanks to the University of Chichester and ABC Learning Centre of Coral Springs for their insights on children's self-portraits which helped write this article.

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