How children’s drawings indicate readiness for school

By Ulrike Staudenmaier, March 2018

Children’s drawings reveal a great deal about the way in which the child is situated in the world, how they relate to themselves and whether they are ready to take in new things.

Over twenty years ago, I advised a mother who came to me with the question whether or not her daughter was ready to start school. I can still vividly see the picture of the six-year-old child: a house with a vertical chimney with thick smoke coming out of it which – hardly having left the chimney – curved downwards and then trailed along the ground.

The mother told me about her uncertainty regarding the time when her daughter should start school. Her husband was equally undecided.

In my view the picture showed a certain maturity and the smoke said: frustration! I advised the mother to decide as quickly as possible with her husband whether her daughter should be sent to school now or in the next year and then to tell her daughter. A week later, the mother returned with a broad smile and a picture in which the smoke was now – after the parents had finally come to a decision to send their daughter to school immediately – noticeably thinner and rose upwards in a straight line.

This episode taught me that it is not just important for the teachers to look whether the child possesses sufficient maturity but also for the parents; they should come to their own view so that the child does not have to live in an atmosphere of uncertainty in the months leading up to school enrolment.

It will come as no great surprise that the way in which children draw pictures has changed completely in the last twenty or even ten years. The wealth of impressions from their surroundings and senses to which children are exposed today influences their physical and emotional maturity.

The house

Our language reveals that the image of the house can also refer to our body: “Nobody home” is slang for someone who’s not quite there. For as long as the child is still completely immersed in their environment and experiences themselves in everything, the chimney on the roof is at an angle. It is as if the child is lifting their arms and in doing so can push a hand out of the roof – as a chimney.

Once they have taken the step to the wakeful observation of the external world and can separate themselves off – that is, they no longer slip into things – then the chimney is vertical. The trained eye will also notice whether the house is orderly (door, windows, roof), whether it is full of life, stable and “weatherproof”.

The tree

Trees and humans have been companions since time immemorial; in some mythologies, the first humans arose out of a tree. Here, too, our language refers us to the connection: “Legs like tree trunks”. At the beginning, children draw the functional maturity of their spine with gangliform swellings (nerve cell clusters in the course of the cranial nerves and spinal cord), blood vessel ladders and rib staircases and then call what they see on the paper a tree. Not until physical maturity is concluded to the extent that the forces which were at work in creating the body shape have been released does the tree with a trunk and crown appear.

Later on it becomes an expression of the individuality and through “tree tests” can tell us much about the unconscious that wants to come to expression. But before it has matured to this extent, we can see from the proportions of the tree, its contact with the ground and its overall form how thinking, feeling and the will for example relate to one another at preschool age or the extent to which it is possible for the soul to express itself in them.

The person

To the extent that there is only one person in the picture, children always draw themselves. This figure can tell us whether the child is grounded, whether they have a perception of their hands and feet, how they have “taken hold” of their shape, and whether they tend towards happiness or sadness.

Have children’s pictures changed?

Examples from 1979 and 1995

 

a) 6 years 3 months, 1979

 

b) 6 years 7 months, 1995

 

c) 6 years 5 months, 1997

 

Picture a), drawn by a boy, shows a compact house on the right with a defined structure and coloured windows – which do not, however, allow us to see inside. There is a strong column of smoke coming out of the chimney, the emotions are rising vertically upwards, accompanied by birds. We can see an annex to the right of the building. Its content is shown and looks like teeth. The tree stands fully on the “base”, the edge of the picture, is turning green and seems very “expressive”. The person is shown in profile on the far left, marching out into the world. The hat together with the hands and the contact with the ground of the feet is an indication of maturity. We gain the impression here that body, soul and spirit display a certain maturity, the boy who drew the picture is ready to start school. He was enrolled.

Picture b) was also drawn by a boy and raises questions. What is the weight distribution in this picture? Does the house appear solid? Does the tree grow out of the ground or does it only stand on top of the grass on two small feet? The person is as big as the two flowers – or was it also to become a flower? More questions are raised than there are answers. Really, we would have to see some of the pictures drawn before this one and, even better, a few drawn afterwards. Then it might be possible to judge whether this child is heading towards school or whether they still need a little more time to mature. The school entry of this child was deferred.

Picture c), again drawn by a boy, shows a tent-like house in which the smoke leaves the roof to the side without any chimney being visible. Despite the smoke, the house does not look very lived in. The tree is a “body tree” which often occurs as children’s drawings develop. The red points or balls remind us of depictions of a sympathetic chain in the sympathetic nervous system. It is not yet a tree as “copied” from nature. The person, a cephalopod, has no arms and hands and is placed at the right edge of the picture as if they could not wait to conquer the world. Probably a clever lad who could be expected to do well in school, but the tree and house indicate that his body has not yet achieved the maturity to be wished from a class 1 pupil. School enrolment was deferred.

Here at the latest the question arises as to what development might take place between the enrolment date (which can often be as early as January) and the date when school actually starts in September. Here it is a good thing if the child’s drawings are not the only test but are supplemented by a whole range of further ones such as body perception, coordination, laterality and others.

It is an interesting fact that the Waldorf teachers with whom I have spoken about the enrolment pictures which are being drawn now confirm that many children are meanwhile starting school who still show physical immaturity in their pictures.

I was also interested by the information that “nature kindergarten children”, who probably do less drawing, draw quite basic pictures when they start school but then very quickly move on to draw beautiful and strong pictures in their day-to-day life at school.

Readiness for school in 2010 – sample pictures

We have looked at examples from 1979, 1995 and 1997. Let us now look at an enrolment picture from 2010. A picture (picture d) drawn by a girl.

The house is attached to the right margin of the picture, has a door and a dormer window in the roof. The dormer shows the typical mullion and transom of a cross window, which says: “I am living here.” But in all other respects the house does not give the impression of being “lived in”. The tree touches the meadow with foot-like structures (cf. also picture b). The trunk has not been coloured in, there is no colour and thus feeling. The crown together with the “fruit” is sometimes interpreted as “maturity”. Here I agree with Helga Zumpfe who writes in this context: “It is interesting that in most of the pictures the dots are drawn in red [examples of pictures with “apple trees”], an active colour emphasising the will and associated with the blood process. In these so-called apple tree pictures, we have drawings of boundary experiences. Our sense organs mediate the outside world, they are the boundary between our body and the world. This boundary experience is a process of the nerves and blood which coagulates in the child into such a picture.”

d) Approx. 5 years 10 months / 2010

 

e/1) Approx. 5 years 10 months / 2006

 

e/2) Approx. 7 years 6 months / 2009

 

This can be seen in picture c). Of course the child is not aware of this and so they call these red forms fruit and as a consequence they can also lie on the grass ... Here both the physical process and ideas and imagination come into the picture. The colourfully shining sun, the butterfly with hearts – all of these things show us an imaginative child. The person has similar feet to the tree. It does not give me the impression that the child is mistress in the house of her body even if she knows that there are five fingers on each hand. According to a teacher, this child developed magnificently and was enrolled in the school after this enrolment picture.

Pictures e/1) and e/2) are both by a girl who drew picture e/1 in 2006 on being enrolled for school and e/2 in 2009 in class 3. The enrolment picture is dominated by the house. It is not clear whether the child is standing in it or in front of it. The door does not have a handle, the windows are very low. Actually the house appears to float – there is no ground – as does the child which has no feet and hands. If I move from the head to the body as drawn, I would have some difficulty “reaching” the legs. The head and the body do not harmonise. The tree is leaning against the right wall of the house. It still seems to need some support.

Picture e/1 is drawn two-and-a-half years later. We see a solid house with a door, windows and a chimney. The windows are again located very low, perhaps copied from a farmhouse? The tree has detached itself from the house and has been given open branches and leaves. The person is small but swims confidently on their back in a small pond in the sunshine. They seem to feel at ease in the element of water – also an image for our feelings. If we want to include the head region, we have the climbing frame standing ready to be climbed …

 

f/1) 5 years 7 months / Jan. 2016

 

f/2) 6 years 7 months / Jan. 2017

f/3) 7 years 4 months / Nov. 2017

 

Deferral allows for further development

Series f/1), f/2), f/3) is by a girl from a Waldorf kindergarten. In January 2016, the picture for enrolment in school was clearly “immature”.

The house in picture f/1) is divided into a door, windows and roof yet it nevertheless gives the impression of being “empty” with little stability. That may also be connected with how the girl is feeling because the accentuated red neck may indicate a throat infection. The very small crown stands out in the tree. The red rings recall pictures c) and d) (as do the “cherries” in picture f/2) and thus still point to bodily processes.

The person has neither hands nor feet nor hair and in terms of their size and significance hark back to infancy. This child did not start school at that time and a year later picture f/2) was drawn at enrolment. We see a clearly straighter house from whose window the girl is looking at us. At the same time she does not have any hair either in the house or on the swing. The tree appears very expressive through its long trunk and brown shading, the crown touches the sky and shows a certain aspiration and ambition. The hints of roots appear like small feet similar to pictures b) and d). Perhaps the tree does not really want to be rooted in the earth as yet? The transition from the trunk to the meadow is not quite clear ... The gesture towards the flower is touching.

There are flowers in each of the three pictures. Picture f/1) shows the “single flower”; in depth psychology this is interpreted as “the self”; that is, actually something towards which the person is developing and which is sometimes drawn by children as self-affirmation. This noticeably highlighted flower, even just through its size (there are actually two in picture f/2), is being touched by the child with an oversized hand. Such large hands often express a wish for contact ... and there are as yet just four fingers.

After this enrolment picture (and other tests) the child was enrolled in the same school year. She started class 1 in September and in November 2017 drew another picture, f/3), for me. We can see that the house has now been coloured in, that means that it has inner life, the windows allow for communication and the door even has two handles. There are two blue flowers which are realistic in size. There is more life in the crown of the tree than ten months ago although it leans slightly to one side – perhaps her state on the day? – because the house has the same inclination; it could also be due to her posture as she was drawing. The person in picture f/3) now lies on her back happily waving at the sun and appears to feel comfortable. The obvious reference to the sun is striking. In picture f/1) the sun has a face and is studying the person who almost seems to be “screwing up” her eyes a little. In the third picture the child is happily waving at the sun. Thus we can see that the picture of the sun relates to an attachment figure, mostly the mother.

Children’s pictures can make us marvel at all the things that come to expression in them. That children today are increasingly including bodily processes in the picture at enrolment has, I hope, become clear. Undoubtedly a great challenge for the teachers of a class 1.

About the author: Ulrike Staudenmaier is a goldsmith and worked as a secretary at “GAB Munich - Association for Research and Development in Vocational Training and Occupations”. She subsequently worked in the school office of the Munich Daglfing Rudolf Steiner School.

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