The Soothing Nature of Scribbles

The freedom of drawing a snowstorm – big movements, swirling, swirling to emulate the wind, the sound of chalk on coarse paper contributing to the effect.

child drawing a snowstorm

Just as we rock babies to sooth them (and quite often, I believe, ourselves too) scribbles can be a part of soothing ourselves.

It can be the rhythmic feeling of the body moving, the sensory stimulation of fingers in/on materials, or the vibrations sensed through the tools used. It can be the delight experienced by the eyes or ears as patterns form – the patterns, the sounds… even the smells.

Whether it be doodling to maintain focus while listening on the phone, or to a lesson or lecture… or intentional scribbling, where the individual sits down to create.

Many times it is a part of a process to feel calm, to self regulate, to feel good or to maintain focus while listening on the phone, or to a lesson or lecture… or intentional scribbling, where the individual sits down to create.

Many times it is a part of a process to feel calm, to self regulate, to feel good or to maintain focus.

child drawing in sandbox
child drawing in sandbox

At the edge of the sandbox. Silent dialogues with 1 year olds in the sand.

From a brain point of view things that feel good, often feel good because the brain wants you to repeat it again.

Doing things over and over is one of the ways the brain learns and evolves. Making connections.

Scribbling, doodling and drawing, especially in things like sand, mud, ooblek, whisked aquafaba, salt etc. offers multiple stimuli for the brain.

The fingertips pick up the vibrations and texture of the materials, and senses how it moves.

The eyes observe the actions of the fingers – traces and tracks appearing that impact how the finger continues – just as both Nona and Roberta have previously shared in their posts (The Hand-Eye Play of Scribbles by Roberta and The Genesis of a Line by Nona)

child drawing with mud

The delights of scribbling in mud. The saying in Swedish is that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

We should never hurry this process of scribbling 

In those scribbles lie the roots of writing, maths, and music – as well as a growing ability for sustained attention.

Watching the squiggles, taking joy in impacting the outcome, exploring the possibilities of what their own fine motor skills allow them to do…

Scribbles ought to be valued more, so that children feel safe to scribble and doodle when they feel the need without the adult gaze or judgement of peers limiting their freedom to soothe themselves through art and/or movement with art materials.

Providing sensory materials can often open up the door to this scribble freedom.

To simply enjoy the process of making marks and tracks in diverse materials – whether that be sand, food, paint or any other sensory material that allows this experience that frees a child from the must-do feeling of having to draw something.

child fingerpainting on light table

A 5 year old enjoying the movement of scribbles of paint on the light table. A clear plastic table cloth (that could be washed and re-used) was placed over the  lightbox in order to provide freedom for exploration. When the child had finished their exploration and created a pattern or image we placed paper on top to create a print.

My observations of young children over the years has shown me that scribbles have a kind of magical quality to them.

Sometimes they are just a scribble, sometimes children observe their scribble and assign a symbol to it – an animal, flower, human, or number/letter – depending on what their eyes convey to the brain.

Often I find children start writing almost before they start drawing… small tiny symbols start appearing in rows – lines, almost circles and squiggles, representing letters and words.

Sometimes the scribbles, drawings and writing are interwoven on the same piece of paper… small intentional figures and things start to appear, that moves into a sensory need to scribble and end with a few intentional symbols – especially those children with older siblings or in mixed age groups.

I really cannot sing the praise of mixed age groups enough for the genesis and growth of the children’s scribbles and drawing in an organic and joyous manner – that frequently leads to children teaching themselves and each other how to write with only the supporting hand of an adult.

child holding pen
tracing around young child's hand

This one year old had been watching the 4 and 5 year old’s draw round their hands.

Whilst scribbling their own hand became a part of the dialogue.

Drawing around it, experiencing the tickle of pen between fingers, and reacting with intense focus to the whole process.

Over and over the child tried to resist the tickle of the pen, time and time again the hand would retract involuntarily almost.

Only one thing is certain – that the written language of children develops in this fashion, shifting from drawings of things to drawings of words. The entire secret of teaching written language is to prepare and organize this natural transition appropriately…Make believe play, drawing, and writing can be viewed as different moments in an essentially unified program of development of written language.

Lev Vygotsky, “The Prehistory of Writing,” an essay, c. 1930 in The Mind in Society, 1978.

The scribbles of this three year old is the child writing a story, and reading aloud the story as they wrote. Several other three year olds sat at the table watching and listening to the story unfold with great joy.

Scribbling is an essential part of this process, as I already wrote it is like the roots, nourishing the soul of drawing, writing and expressing opinions and emotions.

The roots don’t stop growing or evolving, just as a plant grows visibly upwards and outwards, so the roots grow downwards and outwards.

Scribbling is something we need throughout our lives, and is not simply a phase of the very earliest years of childhood.

Guest Contributor

Suzanne Alexsson works as a pedagogical consultant using listening and philosophy with children as tools to improve democratic learning and play spaces in early childhood education. She works on the EY program at the Department of Child and Youth Studies, Stockholm University.  She was a guest on The DEY Podcast with Kisha Reid in January 2022.  She offers workshops and blogs about early childhood education through her Interaction Imagination website.  This article was originally written as part of the #GrammerofDrawing Project. A project Suzanne is involved with in partnership with Roberta Pucci in Reggio Emilia, Italy and Nona Orbach in Kir’yat Tivon, Israel.

Suzanne Axelsson