From abstract to surreal: A toddler art development timeline

It’s bright, it’s vivacious, but is it art? Your toddler may have been playing around with art supplies like crayons, markers, and paints for a while now, but at this point, it’s probably in about the same way that he plays with blocks, or plays in the sand box – he is in it for the experience, not the final product. There are plenty of adults who would give a lot for the ability to live in the moment like that, but most toddlers do eventually start to think a little bit less about what the paint feels like as it hits the page, and a bit more about whether they can make that mark on the page look like a kitty cat. The question is, when does it change?

Why is art important for toddlers?

Making art can be a fun, enriching, and rewarding part of anyone’s life, no matter how old they are. For toddlers in particular, though, these early artistic experiences are a great way to work on a whole range of important skills.

First of all, it’s sensory exploration at its finest, and a great way for him to try out his growing motor skills. On the other hand, though, drawing, painting, and otherwise figuring out how to make shapes appear on a page is an important early step in the development of his early writing skills.

For one thing, he has to know his way around a pencil before he can start working on his penmanship. For another, though, written language is a very complicated set of ideas. Eventually, he is going to understand the connection between the neighbor’s cat, the sound of the word “cat” and the marks on a piece of paper that make up the word on the page. Right now, though, he has only fairly recently made the connection between the picture of the cat and his fuzzy friend. The figurative thinking it takes to connect pictures to objects, like the figurative thinking that it takes to pretend that a plastic banana is a phone, is a skill that’s still developing as he gets more and more imaginative each day.

Between ages 1 and 2

In the year between your toddler’s first and second birthday parties, his artistic style is probably going to stay pretty abstract – in fact, the technical term for what he draws during this time is “random scribbling.”

This is because a lot of your toddler’s artistic exploration around this time is just about letting him figure out what the art materials can do. If Baby likes art during this time, it’s not because he wants to make anything in particular, he just wants to see what he can make that paint do. On the other hand, some toddlers around this age can find intense sensory activities like fingerpaints overwhelming.

Between ages 2 and 3

In the beginning of the second year, random scribbling is still a pretty popular technique with toddlers everywhere, but some time between his second and third birthday, there’s a good chance your toddler will start to subtly transition into controlled scribbling, instead. He’ll still be a scribbler, making lines, scribbles, and dots that aren’t a picture of anything, but he will start to have a little more control over his materials, and may start to draw patterns.

Around this time, he may start to show preferences, like having a favorite medium to use to make art, or a favorite color he uses all the time. He may also start to use art as a way of expressing his feelings – for example, by drawing an “angry” picture, or taking out his frustrations by aggressively mashing clay around.

Between ages 3 and 5

In the time soon after his third birthday, your toddler’s art is probably still usually pretty unplanned, instead of art that’s designed to look like something in particular. He may have started deciding what each of his pictures is a picture “of” once he’s finished, though.

He is still using art to express his feelings, and may be starting to choose colors to match the mood of his pictures. In fact, he may even be getting to the point where it’s not just his own art that makes him feel something – he may be able to look at a picture on the wall and identify that it’s a happy picture, or that something about it makes him sad.

It’s during this time that he starts to get a lot more invested in the way his pictures turn out, too. Once he starts to feel this kind of pride in his art, get ready for the gallery that is the front of your refrigerator to start to get a lot more cluttered.

It’s some time between the ages of 3 and 5 that a toddler starts to draw more intentional pictures of objects and people. The objects and people he draws usually include an identifying detail, like the wheels on a bike, or a person’s smile, but don’t try to include all of the details the toddler remembers or recognizes. Often, the first way toddlers draw people, usually around age 4, involves drawing a head with arms and legs coming from it, instead of differentiating between the head and the body. As he starts to grow intellectually – and to get a bit more practice with art – he will start to draw people in more detail, using more and more of the features he sees.

So while Baby may not be ready for any gallery exhibitions yet, he is well on his way!

  • “Child Development Tracker: Creative Arts, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, 4 to 5.” PBS Parents. PBS. Retrieved on May 18 2017.,,,
  • “Learning to Write and Draw.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 25 2016. Retrieved on 19 May 2017.
  • “Preschooler development.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine, December 9 2016. Retrieved on May 19 2017. 

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