Tom Higgins

About Me

Tom Higgins

I retired as Principal of Breaffy National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo in 1998. This project arises from my experience of teaching art and art appreciation in the Primary School, now known as looking and responding to art.

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Stages in the Development of Art

The following survey of the stages in art development may prove to be a useful guide for drawing and painting, with more emphasis on painting for older children.

The scheme offers guidelines on the level of development the teacher can expect in the different age groups and provides suggestions as to how the children can be guided in their progress through each stage, and how their work may be assessed.

It needs to be emphasised that the choice of topic is important, together with discussion beforehand in order to create awareness, establish empathy and to stimulate interest.


Importance of the Preschematic Stage.

As the children emerge from the previous scribble stage, the conscious creation of form begins. That is, they begin to represent people and objects in their drawings. In scribbling, they could only indicate a relationship to bodily movement, but now they are able to relate with what they intend to represent. They are becoming more aware of their environment. The teacher can now discuss the drawing with them.


The first symbol is usually a man/woman, starting with a circle for the head and two vertical lines for the legs, leading to detailed drawing of a man/woman at age six. The children are egocentric at this stage. It is only themselves they see and draw. As well as the man/woman symbol there is also the house and tree symbol. Lots of variety will be noticeable in their drawings at this stage.


During this stage the children are stimulated more by an object itself than by the correct colour for the object. A man may be red or green, for example. This does not mean that colours do not have emotional significance for them. It has been found that children selected yellow crayon to colour a happy picture, whereas the same picture was coloured brown if the child was told a sad story.

At this stage the teacher should not point out "correct" colours to children, but provide opportunities to discover their own relationships with colours.


There is no right or wrong way to portray space in a drawing. Many contemporary artists have rejected mechanical perspective of space in favour of a two dimensional surface. The child is egocentric at this stage and conceives space as what is around him/her.

At first glance, children seem to place objects in a somewhat random order. However, closer inspection will show that they conceive of space as what is around them. That is, objects will appear above, below or beside each other. They do not see themselves as standing on the ground with other objects also on the ground beside them. They will say, "there am I, this is an ambulance, there are aeroplanes, that is the sky, I am in the middle". They conceive space as related to themselves, and there is no logical or ordered relationship between the objects.

Just as children draw what is around them in an apparently random fashion, their comments tend to be disconnected. As long as a child is in the pre-schematic stage there is no advantage in trying to teach him/her how to read.

Note the emphasis on drawing for this and later age groups. For younger children, drawing will be an exercise in which they will be engaged throughout the day and not just as a once a week lesson.

Note also that drawing cannot be 'taught' by demonstration. The teacher need not worry that he/she cannot draw. Learning to draw is a natural development with the proper stimulation and subject matter, and above all, by encouragement. What the teacher needs to be familiar with are the stages of development and knowledge of what to expect from a particular age group. In that way progress can be assessed. With regard to subject matter, it should be primarily people-based.

Preschematic drawings as a reflection of growth.

Drawing becomes in itself a learning experience for the children, through which they can develop self-awareness. The following is crucial: the more differentiated and detailed these drawings are, the more highly the intellectual processes have been developed, and the more aware the child is of the world around him/her. If the same symbol is always repeated in the same way there is no self-expression, the child lacks confidence and is probably hiding behind stereotypes.

In order to promote development and growth we must look for, and encourage deviations from the basic symbols, for example, exaggerations of body parts with which the child is involved. Subjects should be set which will draw his/her attention to different body parts. A subject like "Picking Flowers" will draw attention to hands. In a topic like "Walking on the Grass after the Rain" the size of the feet may be exaggerated as an emotional reaction to the wetness.

The drawing lesson should be preceded by discussion, use of mime and WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and HOW questions. In a similar manner encourage deviations from the house and tree symbols.

Effective teaching will be measured by the degree to which the child deviates from the basic schema.

Motivation and Subject Matter.

Research has shown that a supportive-permissive atmosphere in the classroom is the best for art development and creativity. Research has also shown that the years between five and eight are the years of rapid improvement in perceptual analytic ability. Hence, these are the years in which to develop the ability to look, to examine and take pleasure in a visual awareness of things in the environment. Hence also, the value of sense training, nature study and general environmental studies.

Subject matter is an important factor in motivation. One of the best ways of stimulating the children's awareness of things around them is to start with the function of various body parts. For example, six year olds who draw only a line for a mouth at all times (the basic unchanged symbol), can be motivated to include teeth and other facial features by stimulating an awareness of teeth in a topic such as ‘Brushing my Teeth in the Morning’.

Discuss the topic, use actions, mime and lots of questions such as WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and HOW. Sometimes the motivation can be achieved by actively engaging the children in an experience, or they may have just been engaged in an actual experience, for example, after coming in out of the rain.

The more the children identify with what they are doing, the more they are using their senses and the more meaning the art activity has for them. To emphasise this, the ‘I’ is placed first in the following topics. A greater awareness should evolve for the body parts, size, and emotional relationships.

Topics for Awareness of Body Parts.

I hurt my knee, I have a cold and my nose hurts, I have a pain in my tummy, I am brushing my teeth, I am drinking my milk, I am at the dentist, I am eating my breakfast, I am putting on my sweater, I am on the swing, I and my doll, I got a big birthday present, I and my pet, I and my mother, I and my family, I and my house, I am blowing my nose, I am picking flowers, etc.

Many topics will arise out of stories and poems which can be related to the life experiences of the children.

Size and Relationship Topics.

My home is big, I am pushing the trolley in the supermarket, I am putting on my clothes, I am on the swing, I am crawling on my tummy, I am standing on the table. Use ‘My Family’ as a general topic.

Topics arising out of the children's news.

My cat had kittens, etc.

Topics expressing feelings and emotions.

The snow, the storm, holidays, a big fire, the bonfire, Halloween, Christmas.

Personal Topics.

My new baby sister, I got lost, I have a new dress, etc.


Discussion about the work should take place with individuals while in progress, and at the end of the session, and the child encouraged to talk about his/her work to classmates.


At this stage, after much experimentation, the child arrives at a definite concept of man and his environment. Here we refer to schema as the concept at which the child has arrived and repeats again and again, not as a stereotyped repetition but in a flexible manner as influenced by his/her experiences. The child is still using a basic schema or formula in the drawings but within this there is room for great flexibility.

These schemata are highly individualised in the sense that no two are identical. When there are modifications to the schema then we know that the child has portrayed something of importance to him/her. Effective teaching will be measured by the degree to which the child deviates from the basic schema.

The Human Schema.

By the age of seven the drawing of a human should be a readily recognised symbol. All the body parts should be seen and be recognisable in the drawing. The symbols for the features should be different and there should be hair and a neck. There are no sex or clothes differences yet. The body and body parts will consist of geometric drawings - ovals, circles, squares and rectangles. The child is not attempting to copy visual form but portraying his/her concept of the world. No attempt therefore should be made to ‘correct’ the drawings. All of this should be considered as a reflection of the child's development. Drawing is learned through appropriate experiences, not taught through lessons in drawing.

Incidentally, there will be some children in the 7-9 year stage who still will not have progressed beyond the pre schematic stage, and others who will have developed to the 9- 12 year stage.

The Space Schema.

The great discovery during this stage is that there is a relationship between objects in space. The children no longer think of objects in isolation from one another. Now they think, ‘I am on the ground, the car is on the ground, grass grows on the ground, we are all on the ground’. The first conscious awareness that the children feel part of their environment is expressed by a symbol called the baseline. From now on, this consciousness is expressed by putting everything on this important baseline.

The schema is usually a representation of two dimensions. An awareness of how to represent the three dimensional quality of space has not developed at this stage.

The baseline is universal and can be considered a most natural part of the child's development. Its counterpart appears in children's drawings as a skyline, usually drawn at the top of the picture. The space between the skyline and the baseline is identified by the children as being air. In point of fact it is an illusion to think of the sky as coming down to ground level, as adults do. The child at this stage sometimes uses plan and elevation in the one drawing.

X-ray Pictures.

The child often depicts the inside and outside of things in the one drawing, for example, a building. These also provide a source for motivation.

Significance of Deviation from the Schema.

Through variations and deviations from the schema we gain insights into the child's experience. Three principal forms of deviation can be noticed in children's drawings

  1. Exaggeration of body parts.
  2. Neglect or omission of unimportant parts.
  3. Change of symbols for significant parts.


At this stage the child discovers that colours are related to objects, for example, green for grass. It is no longer a random choice. This indicates a development in the child's thinking processes. But teachers should not stress ‘proper’ colours for objects or teach the rules of perspective. The earlier established colour schema will not change unless the child becomes personally involved in an experience where a change of colour becomes important.

Development of the Child.

The child is no longer egocentric but develops the ability to see things in relation to each other and to himself/herself. The development of the schema signifies a change to a more co-operative attitude, the ability to relate to others in talk and games. The child is now ready for a formal reading programme.

Motivation, 7 - 9 years.

During the schematic stage a definite concept of man, space, colour and objects is established. The task of the teacher is to give the child an opportunity to use these concepts, not as rigid form symbols but as living experiences.

We need to stimulate a greater awareness of the actions and functions of the human figure and to stimulate the child's consciousness of being part of the environment.

Motivation could be summarised by the word WE (stimulating the consciousness of ‘I’ and somebody else), ACTION (what we are doing), and WHERE (description of place).

Any motivation should make the child sensitively aware of himself/herself and the environment, and should develop and stimulate a desire to paint and draw a meaningful picture.

Motivation for a Topic.

We are playing football, basketball, and other action topics.

Questions: WHEN do we play - WHERE do you play – HOW do you play this game? Do you have to run very fast, jump high for the ball, bump into each other or get tripped? How do your legs go when you get tripped? Do you have to bend forward when you run, fall sometimes? How do you catch the ball, kick the ball? Do you hurt your knee on the tarmac sometimes? Having the children mime these activities could be a useful preparation for the drawing.

Other topics in a similar manner.

We are jumping a rope, we are playing games on a rainy day, we are running in the fields, we are playing ball with bats, we are climbing a hill, we are climbing a tree, we are shopping for mother.

Many topics will arise from stories and poetry, from discussions on the news.


I like ketchup in my hamburger, we got our shoes covered with mud, we find bright colours in autumn, the men are painting our house, my doll has many different colours.

Emotional, Fantasy and Dreams.

The time I was most afraid, I am a fierce animal.

The Art Elements as a Stimulation.

We paint a red picture, a rough or smooth picture.

In all of this, the aim is to stimulate a greater awareness of the self, other people and the environment. Art is merely the vehicle through this may be accomplished.


One of the most important characteristics of this developmental stage is that the child discovers that he/she is a member of society. During this time children lay the groundwork for the ability to work in groups and to co-operate in adult life.

The schema is no longer adequate to represent the human figure, it being a generalised expression of man. Now the child wants to show sex and clothes differences. The geometric shapes making up the human figure no longer suffice. The child moves to a form of expression more closely related to nature, but still far from a visual representation. Details like folds in clothes are still not drawn. Usually there is no attempt at showing light and shade or atmospheric effects. If and when the children are ready for these they could then be helped. There is a loss of feeling for action, leading to a greater stiffness in the drawings. No longer are exaggerations, omissions or other deviations used to the same extent, as those things would seem unnatural.

In this connection, showing the children reproductions of artworks would be beneficial. Works by Picasso and the Expressionists for example, will convey the notion that distortions can sometimes be used by artists for special effects.

Subject matter.

Many art topics will be seasonal. In an integrated curriculum, most subjects will arise from literature, history, religion and environmental studies. Because virtually all aspects of the curriculum are an exploration of the human condition, the motivation and stimulus for art projects are readily available. In relating their developing awareness of the human condition to their own lives, the children are afforded the stimulation and opportunity to respond creatively and expressively in their drawing and painting. ART IS EXPRESSION.

An easy approach is initially through portraits, then using more than one figure in a painting, and later on, the figure in the landscape. This approach to subject matter applies equally in the 7 - 9 year-old stage.

Meaning of Colour.

There is a greater awareness of colour and subtle colour distinctions. If the child cannot distinguish the green of a shrub from the green of a lawn it shows that he/she has not yet refined his/her visual reactions to the environment. Development in this area should be promoted by encouraging observation and not by teaching how to use and apply colour.

Any discussion of colour should focus on experience and the observation of things in the environment. Hence the value of Environmental Studies and Nature Study.

Meaning of Space.

In making progress towards a more natural mode of expression the baseline goes out of their drawings and the skyline extends all the way down the page. A number of baselines may be used as the plane is discovered. The child also becomes conscious of overlapping, and this possibility can be an exciting discovery and should be fully utilised in subject matter. It will be helpful to show the children pictures that illustrate overlapping.


Discussion of landscape paintings will help to develop an awareness of techniques used by artists to create a sense of space - techniques such as aerial perspective (Impressionist paintings where colours in the distance are brighter and less intense), objects drawn small to show they are far away, and drawn big to show nearness. Subjects for painting can be related to and stimulated by class discussions on Expressionist paintings where colour, shape, line and texture are often distorted for emotional effect. In their paintings the children should be supported in the free use of exaggeration and distortion for emotional effect. Children who constantly depend on stereotypes are unable to express their true feelings. Hence the importance of providing expressive outlets for the development of emotional growth.


This stage is a development and a natural growth from the previous stage. There is a greater attempt at naturalistic representation, shading, overlapping, aerial perspective and line perspective. Some under twelve-year olds will be in this stage.

The Naturalistic Stage does not involve children in making exact copies of nature. Allow and encourage a subjective approach, especially for children so inclined. Again, discussion of a variety of artworks will be helpful.


All through this review there is an emphasis on the primacy of expression in art learning. This is a reminder of the long-standing belief that skills should first be taught before children are capable of expressing themselves. The notion that skills are best learned when opportunities for expression are provided is well founded. In this context I offer a quotation by Viktor Lowenfeld from his book Creative and Mental Growth.

The development of skill will avail the child nothing unless the need and urge for expression is there first. The expression of the self, the urge to put down experiences that are meaningful, the desire to put into writing or art the frustrations or joys of life, must all be present before skills can be developed. Encouraging this expression is the crux of an arts education programme. Once the desire for expression is awakened, the urge to develop particular skills will follow. (Italics mine).

There are implications in the above not only for the teaching of art but also the teaching of reading and writing and indeed, many other areas of the curriculum.