What children’s drawings can tell us

By Ulrike Staudenmaier, December 2015

If we compare the changes which occur in children’s drawings over a certain period of time, it is as if we were watching the child “landing” on earth. From the initial “body pictures” the drawings move on to a depiction of what is seen and imagined. Ulrike Staudenmaier investigates the question of what comes to expression in these depictions.

Feelings, events, conflicts and illnesses, but also joy and pure wellbeing are put on paper in “symbols” by children in the course of their development.

I have marvelled as the pictures have revealed the path from “cosmic” movement via the representation of their own physical development to the depiction of what they perceive. Many question can arise in this context – some are answered when we relive the picture.

Other pictures reveal themselves when we reflect on their “symbolic content” – the house which can stand for their own physicality or the ship which at some point we ourselves have to steer into new waters.

What is it about tadpole figures?

For years I have reflected on the question: why do children draw “tadpole figures” in the course of their development? We know that there are “depictions of people” before the first tadpole figures appear. No development runs in a linear fashion. But the tadpole figures are not “unsuccessful” depictions of people! For that they are drawn for too long a period and too clearly, and it is undoubtedly happening from an inner motivation. We know from the pictures of trees – possibly again after one or several inspired “realistic” trees – that trees first occur as “body trees”. The vertebra, ribs, nerve endings, lungs or veins are indicated in such a way that the child believes they have drawn a “tree”.

This “organic memory” – a concept coined by Arno Stern – with which we are familiar in many tree variations, including in the human-tree combination, comes to expression in the pictures of children during a specific developmental period. It is the growth of organic processes which become the subject of the children’s drawing from out of the depths of the unconscious, even if the child is not aware of it. Consider the first houses! The chimney has the angle of an upstretched arm, for the child experiences their body like a house which they have slipped into.

Could the depiction of the tadpole figure not be the drawing of a formal event which tells us something about the process of bone growth?

Let us look at the following depictions of people in their chronological order: picture 1 was created at the age of 4 years and 7 months. The girl chose a large portrait format to draw herself as a skier.

Picture 1

The remarkable feature is the red swirl placed on the head which was previously already drawn in light brown and from which the red legs start (also drawn over the previously light brown ones). The red colour here highlights a “concentration of energy” in the head which “pours” into both legs.

On picture 2 (drawn by the same girl, as are all the following pictures), three figures are visible in which both the arms and the legs start from the head. The shoulders are highlighted in brown in the left and middle figure. Only the small child who is lying on the grass at the bottom and is held by the hand by the big figure on the left has arms which do not start at the head – curious!

Picture 2

Now we get to picture 3, one of many tree-person depictions which is different from what has gone before. What we acquire through practice simply does not proceed in a linear fashion.

Picture 3

Picture 4 picks up the depiction of the human being again in such a way that the legs and arms come from the head. The various levels of experience are very intermixed in this picture. We can see in the long flower on the left with the many red “buds” that here a bodily process occurs which relates to the back. Another level is the hand in the trouser pocket, a reflection of what is perceived by the child themselves, and the house in turn has so many windows that here we can find depicted the wakefulness and curiosity of the child who has drawn the picture.

Picture 4

At the age between three and six years, pictures are often motivated from various levels.

On picture 5 we can see the person depicted as a five-pointed star, additionally a stick with a five-pointed star at the end is held in each hand, two dwarves (one blue and one red) sit to the right and left of each leg and there is a fir tree at the right and left edge of the sheet.

Picture 5

How does a child come to draw a person as a five-pointed star? It quite clearly forms the centre and is surrounded by a shining arch (gateway, aura). As far as I am aware, Rudolf Steiner only commented once in Paris on the five-pointed star (An Esoteric Cosmology, lecture 12, 8 June 1906) and mentioned it in connection with symbolic forms. But I think we have to deal cautiously with this content and not “overburden” such children’s drawings.

But if in contrast a duality appears as frequently as in the picture just described, this in general indicates a process of growing consciousness even if the child cannot yet reflect on it.

Picture 6, seven months later, is quite different. School is approaching and the picture’s subject matter is what the child has experienced (the circus). Now the child draws wholly from mental images.

Picture 6

Tadpole figures from a spiritual perspective

Let us return to the tadpole figures. How do children experience the growth of their bones, of their arms and legs, in their unconscious? From what layer or which forces do children receive their motivation to make the arms and legs come out of the head?

I found an answer to this question in Steiner in his Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies. Here he describes that in the first seven years of life the whole human being is formed from out of the head. “Each bone,” Steiner says, “is formed such as it should be formed starting from the head …”

We know from embryo research that it is the head which is most pronounced and largest. Its outer development is also concluded before the rest of the body (at approx. three years).

From another perspective, Steiner writes about bone formation in his book Extending Practical Medicine like this: “We will only understand the brain of the human being if we can see in it the bone-forming tendency which is interrupted in its very earliest stage. And we will only gain an insight into bone formation if we recognise in it the effect of a brain impulse which has been fully concluded.”

There are descriptions by Steiner of limb development in the tenth and thirteenth lecture of the lecture cycle Study of Man.

Now we can ask ourselves whether bone formation and limb development are identical. We should perhaps consider that Steiner is referring to school children there. A different “plane” we might say. If we look at a bodily event from the astral plane, we obtain a different picture than from the etheric plane.

In the passages quoted above, bone formation is seen as coming from the head. As far as growth is concerned, as described in Study of Man, the soul and spiritual element coming from the cosmos streams in through the limbs. In this way we can understand that bodily events can be read not just into trees, roofs or mountains (when teething) but also into the way that people are depicted. When arms and legs grow out of the head, then the child is not drawing like that because that is the only thing they can do but because their inner formative processes want to come to expression.

The health-giving aspect of spontaneous drawing lies in the person drawing being able to put something outside themselves, thus in a certain sense enabling a “healthy digestion” for themselves..

Children all over the world – when they are given the opportunity – draw in a similar language of forms until the pictures based in bodily processes gradually progress to pictures which are put on paper “intentionally”, that is through the imagination.

It seems to be an archetypal need of human beings to re-enact their development also through drawing.

About the author: Ulrike Staudenmaier is a goldsmith, worked as secretary at GAB e.V. Munich and subsequently in the school office of the München Daglfing Rudolf Steiner School.

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