How Scientists Use Kid Art To Figure Out What Children Are Thinking
While drawing conclusions based on children's artwork might not be a good idea for non-psychologists, it's undeniable that each doodle tells a personal story.
From the edges of the paper, a thick black line spiraled darkly. A man in freefall, hastily drawn, tumbled into the graphite morass. “Tell me about this picture,” Gussie Klorer, an art therapist and professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville asked the seven-year-old boy responsible for the drawing. “He’s just falling,” the boy responded, pointing to the black spiral. “That’s a bottomless pit.” Klorer frowned. “What is going to happen next?”
“Nothing. He’s just going to fall forever.”
Klorer understood the metaphor. Helplessness, inevitability. It made sense; the boy had landed in a residential treatment facility in Missouri due to family abuse and neglect. Drawing helped him convey the feelings his juvenile mind could grasp, if not articulate. Still, he was stuck. “I worked with him through the metaphor he chose,” Klorer recalls. “What else might happen? Could there be an ending? Is there any way this gets resolved? He had to resolve it. It wouldn’t do any good if I resolved it, and he was left falling forever.”
Like all art therapists, Klorer relies on both the power of artistic expression and children’s natural ability to express themselves creatively (and often unselfconsciously) across mediums. Research and decades of therapeutic work has demonstrated that children’s artistic abilities develop in predictable and similar patterns across cultures. And while making a diagnosis based on artwork is, at best, an imprecise science, clinicians have shown that all those drawings stuck haphazardly on refrigerators and in drawers around the world tell multitudinous personal stories.
So it behooves parents who wish to truly understand their kids to learn a thing or two about art therapy. Because the straightest line to a child’s thinking, it turns out, is often a squiggle.
“Children’s artwork is their world coming out, and we get to peek inside their mind,” Amy Backos, chair of the Art Therapy Program at Notre Dame University, told Fatherly. “It is one way to really connect with your child. All you have to say is ‘tell me about your drawing’.”
Artistic Milestones: How Children Draw As They Develop
Children around the world, even from vastly different cultures, tend to draw pictures with common themes and to display comparable skill at each developmental stage.
Viktor Lowenfield, a pioneer of art therapy, identified five stages of artistic development in healthy children—sort of like milestones. From two to four years of age, children begin scribbling. Color doesn’t matter, and kids seem content to be dragging any writing implement across any surface. At around age four, they begin to show representational images with particular themes. Crucially, they master the straight line, circle, triangle, and square. “Based on those shapes, they are able to create many images,” says Ikuko Acosta, director of the Art Therapy Program at New York University. “A square house with a triangle roof, a lollipop-shaped tree, human figures with a circle face and a square body, straight lines for extremities.”
But these drawings exist in a vacuum, as young artists still do not fully understand the connection between images and the environment. It is not until age seven that children begin drawing ground lines beneath their once floating lollipop trees, or working a sky into the scenery.
It is also around this age that gender differences creep onto the page. Girls focus on detailed face drawings, with emphasis on eyelashes and lips, and figures who look posed for a photograph. Boys de-emphasize the face and are more likely to draw their characters in motion, playing a sport or running. “These differences are, naturally, gender-related,” Acosta says. “Girls emphasize appearance and details, while boys emphasize masculinity and strength.”
Around age nine, realism kicks in and carries children through their teenage years and into adulthood. To account for the environment’s depth, preteens learn to place a tree behind a house or make a foreground image smaller than its background. They pay careful attention to color. By the time they enter their teens, their drawings are indistinguishable from those made by adults.
Understanding how artistic ability develops in healthy children is important, because it can help parents and clinicians notice when a child is not meeting milestones or has regressed. “If there’s a drawing that looks like a four-year-old did it, and the child is eight, that’s the kind of drawing that would make me say, ‘Oh, let’s find out more about what’s going on,” Backos says. “Children sometimes regress when there are even normal stressors, like the birth of a sibling.”
Drawing One’s Demons: How Art Helps Kids Cope
The boy who drew bottomless pits only began making progress after several sessions. Rather than drawing pit after pit, the seven-year-old had moved on to gory battle scenes (neither side wins; the war goes on forever, he said) and men tumbling out of airplanes. His therapist regarded one stick figure, plunging from 40,000 feet, and saw an opportunity. “What if the story doesn’t end there?” Klorer asked. “What else could happen?”
The boy pondered this for a moment, and then hastily drew a volcano beneath the image of the plummeting man. “He’s going to fall into a volcano,” the boy intoned. “And it’s a bottomless pit.”
It is sorely tempting to diagnose children based on their disturbing artwork, alone. We’d like to believe that every troubled kid draws on-the-nose pits of despair. And sometimes that does happen. Studies have tracked how children with academic challenges draw differently than healthy children, and how kids whose parents have divorced tend to draw their families sans siblings, hands, and feet, supposedly showing loss of agency and heightened family conflict.
But it’s more complicated than that. “The idea of using drawing in therapy came way back from Freud,” Martha Driessnack, a professor at Oregon Health and Science University who pioneered the use of drawing in clinical pediatric research, told Fatherly. “A lot of the original work on drawing looked at pathology, so people are always looking even now. But we know better.”
Art therapists stress that there is no standard image, or red flag in an image, that can indicate trauma or pathology. Even those trained in art therapy never rely upon a single drawing alone, but collect sheafs of samples before reaching their conclusions. “There is no one-to-one correlation between a symbol in a drawing and a diagnosis,” Backos says. “It just doesn’t exist.”
That said, there are concrete measures that, taken together, can guide therapists. Many art therapists make use of the Draw A Person Test, which evaluates children by scoring 55 aspects of how they drew a person, from the presence of fingers and toes to the number of articles of clothing that person is wearing. Even then, one or two symbols in isolation mean very little.
“We look for clusters,” Backos says. “Absence of hands and feet might indicate lack of agency if coupled with a whole bunch of other things.” Similarly, one violent or disturbing image among many is no cause for alarm. Therapists only become concerned when a disturbing theme or telltale sign of emotional distress repeats, again and again. Like a bottomless pit.
Clinical Art Appreciation: How Art Therapy Works
Disheartened by the volcano and its predictably bottomless pit, Klorer soldiered on. “What else could happen?” The boy drew a soft snowbank on the ledge of the volcano, and suggested that the man just might fall into it. Klorer was ecstatic, but her joy was short lived.
“Of course,” the boy said, thoughtfully. “He would just freeze to death.”
Art is not just how children express their emotions. It can also be a crucial part of their healing process. One strategy, championed by Driessnack and now pervasive in child psychology research, is using drawings to start a conversation. “When children are given the opportunity to draw, they’re being provided with the opportunity to organize their thoughts before they have to talk about them,” Driessnack says. “Do not interpret their drawings. Let them tell their story.” With this method, Driessnack has managed to study how children with ADHD feel about their lot firsthand, and monitor how kids actually think about nutrition and wellness.
Beyond what children say, therapists and parents alike can learn a lot from how children draw. “We sit right next to child and witness the whole process of making art,” Acosta says. “We’re not just diagnosing by looking at the end product.” Therapists look at how much pressure a child is applying to page, what details they refashion or erase. Acosta recalls one teenage patient who insisted that she had a fine relationship with her mother, despite reports to the contrary. As if to prove her point, the girl chose to spend the therapy session drawing a portrait of her mother.
Acosta took in every detail. “Sitting next to her, I observed extreme pressure and tension,” she says. “Holding the marker in her fist, the way a child holds a fork, pressing so hard that I was afraid the paper was going to rip. The end result was a very angry, aggressive looking woman.”
Drawing can be incorporated into conventional therapy, too. Backos spent years working with kids who had experienced the trauma of sexual assault and trafficking, and guided her patients through four stages of therapy—safety and hope, developing coping skills, building a coherent trauma narrative, and post-traumatic growth—with the help of art. She taught them to feel safe and hopeful, by prompting them to draw pictures that highlighted their hobbies and the things and people that they loved; she taught them how to cope with frustration and lack of control, with round robin exercises in which patients completed one another’s drawings. Free drawing helped them turn confusing and terrifying experiences into a coherent narrative. As a final project, the girls made advocacy posters to raise awareness of sexual assault.
Klorer hoped that she could similarly help her patient and his bottomless pit problem. But every one of her gentle prompts led to another story of inevitability and loss. She was at a loss.
“Are there no other possibilities?” she nudged. The boy was silent.
Interpreting Children’s Drawings: What Does It Mean?
Although it is conceivable that an enterprising parent might turn to the Draw A Person Test or other metrics to analyze their children’s artwork, it’s probably futile. Parents are strongly advised to save the diagnosing for the professionals. There are a few red flags, however, that even the layperson can use at home to decide whether a series of drawings are indicative of a problem.
“You’re going to see a wide range of feelings and energy in children’s artwork,” Klorer says. “When that energy doesn’t show a wide range but stays in one place—a child who draws one thing, there is never any resolution and, when you ask the child about it, you get a feeling of despair—that would be your clue that you might need some professional help there.”
But art isn’t just for therapy. “Children are natural artists; they express themselves visually, especially when they are unable to do so verbally,” Acosta says. “It doesn’t have to be children with a history of trauma or mental illness. This is goes for all children, universally.”
Driessnack recommends that parents invest in artwork as a way to bond with their children. “If you’re trying to communicate with your child, let them do art, and do your own art right alongside them,” she says. “There’s a big push right now for fathers and mothers to read out loud to their children. I say the parallel to that is art.” Because talking to your kids through art is, fundamentally, communication on their turf. In the world of adult words and expectations, children scramble to adapt and seldom convey their thoughts and feelings coherently. Until they sit in front of a blank piece of construction paper. “It’s a natural medium for children, not so for adults,” Driessnack says. “And that’s really good, because it slows you down a little.”
Crayons, colored pencils, and markers are how kids speak, when at their most honest and their most vulnerable. An active, involved parent would do well to listen—and scribble along, too.
Klorer does not know what happened to the boy who painted the bottomless pits, in the long term. But she feels confident that he improved over the course of therapy. In fact, it was regarding the episode of the airplane (and the falling man’s inevitable death by fiery volcano or frozen ice ledge) that Klorer first saw tangible evidence of improvement and, perhaps, a path forward. Staring at the now heavily edited paper, she knew that just the right nudge could help him resolve this story, on paper and in his mind. “No other possibilities?” she tried, again.
The boy paused, and then drew a small village at the base of the mountain. “Maybe the villagers will arrange a rescue party,” he whispered. “Maybe they’ll bring the man home.”
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