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 she plays with blocks, or plays in the sand box – she 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 her to try out her 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 her early writing skills.

For one thing, she has to know her way around a pencil before she can start working on her penmanship. For another, though, written language is a very complicated set of ideas. Eventually, she 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, she has only fairly recently made the connection between the picture of the cat and her 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 she gets more and more imaginative each day.

Between ages 1 and 2

In the year between your toddler’s first and second birthday parties, her artistic style is probably going to stay pretty abstract – in fact, the technical term for what she 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 her figure out what the art materials can do. If Baby likes art during this time, it’s not because she wants to make anything in particular, she just wants to see what she 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 her second and third birthday, there’s a good chance your toddler will start to subtly transition into controlled scribbling, instead. She’ll still be a scribbler, making lines, scribbles, and dots that aren’t a picture of anything, but she will start to have a little more control over her materials, and may start to draw patterns.

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

Between ages 3 and 5

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

She is still using art to express her feelings, and may be starting to choose colors to match the mood of her pictures. In fact, she may even be getting to the point where it’s not just her own art that makes her feel something – she 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 her sad.

It’s during this time that she starts to get a lot more invested in the way her pictures turn out, too. Once she starts to feel this kind of pride in her 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 she 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 she starts to grow intellectually – and to get a bit more practice with art – she will start to draw people in more detail, using more and more of the features she sees.

So while Baby may not be ready for any gallery exhibitions yet, she is well on her 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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