The Physical Environment & It’s Effect on Children’s Emotional Expressions Through Drawing Becky Simkhai ED 630 Summer 2011 Professor Wang
Children’s artwork is a reflection of cognitive ability as well as emotion. Often times this artwork provides children with a mode of expression not available to them through language. This study examined the effect of the physical environment as it relates to a child’s ability to successfully convey emotion through their artwork. For the purpose of this study, a 6 year old boy with typical abilities was asked to draw four sets of positive & negative emotion drawings in different environments. These environments ranged from was perceived as “safe & familiar” to “new and scary”. The conclusion based on the findings is that environment can play a role in a child’s ability to fully realize an expression of emotion through drawing. These findings can be used to help teachers create classrooms that are safe spaces to explore creativity and artistic expression.
“It is still true that a thousand words scarcely exhaust the richness of a single image.” Bruner
Throughout the ages children have used expression through art as a way to tell a story or articulate emotion. Often times, children are able to express ideas through art that they are not yet able to do through spoken or written language. As children gain motor skills they begin to see art as a means to tell their story, or to create a visual representation of the tale they imagine in their head. In times of great crisis such as The Holocaust and the September 11th attacks, children are able to communicate their grief and fear through their drawings and paintings. Without the boundaries of language, expression through the arts is truly a universal form of communication.
In the classroom, teachers have a valuable opportunity to use this form of communication to better understand their students and ultimately create an environment that fosters learning and growth in the student. The question then becomes are certain classroom environments better suited to helping the student fully realize their artistic expressions? For instance, how would students work be effected by changes in the physical environment such as noise, light, associations, and various forms of distractions. Can teachers use this information to create the best space for students to explore their creative potential?
Following the model of children’s cognitive development stages as outlined by Piaget (1952), Lowenfeld (1957) assigned four different stages of graphic development in children from ages 2 to 11. He said, “As growth progresses, the creative expression, a visible manifestation of [that] growth, changes”. Lowenfeld believed that children’s graphic expression begins with scribbling, evolving to a consistent use of their own personal set of schemas which they use to describe the world around them.
The four stages Lowenfeld identified covering ages 2-11 are: scribbling, preschematic, schematic, and drawing realism or transitional. Following Lowenfeld’s stages of graphic representational development, Lev, the subject in this study, falls into the schematic stage (ages 6-10). Children in this stage typically use symbols consistently and organize their drawings around a baseline. During this stage there is also more use of detail provided in their visual narrative. Lev has developed a fairly consistent set of visual schemas that he uses to express himself. His use of the baseline is inconsistent, suggesting that his development falls into the early spectrum of the schematic stage.
One of the leading researchers on the connection between children’s cognitive skills and their ability to represent conventional benchmarks visually is Rawley Silver. Silver eventually developed the Silver Test Of Cognitive and Create Skills which has been used for the past 30 plus years as a visually based cognitive assessment for children. Based on the findings that , “cognitive skills can be evident in the visual as well as verbal conventions, and that these skills, traditionally identified, assessed, and developed through words, can also be identified, assessed, and developed through drawing”, Silver designed a test that would help teachers assess students who might not be adequately measured by other forms of cognitive testing.
Drawing #1 The first location chosen was the kitchen counter, a place normally associated with completing homework assignments. Lev was given the assignment and left to work alone in the room. He once commented that he had multiple black markers that he did not need, but otherwise worked in a focused, independent manner. The tester returned into the room after the five minutes had elapsed, but Lev continued to work for an additional minute.
Drawing #2 Once he completed the “best day ever” assignment, he was given the second task. Initially he struggled to come up with an idea for his drawing, but after a few minutes of consideration he began working and worked independently for almost nine minutes until his drawing was completed.
Drawing #3 The following day Lev was visiting his grandmother at her apartment in New York City. It is a place he normally associates with special occasions and vacations. Lev was given the same assignment as on the first day and began to work immediately. He began drawing and quickly asked the tester how to make a certain letter. He was reminded that using letters in the drawing was not permitted. He then asked why he could only use five minutes for the drawing. The tester told him he could work for as long as needed to complete the exercise, but five minutes was the suggested time frame.
Drawing #4 After being given permission to start the second drawing Lev immediately put his head down on the paper and began to sigh. He seemed tired and reluctant to complete the task. He asked why he couldn’t do two “best day ever” drawings and wanted to know what the drawings were being used for. He drew for one minute, told the tester he was done, but continued to draw for another four minutes.
Drawing #5 The next day Lev returned home and was placed inside a bathtub with shower curtain drawn closed and asked to perform the same tow drawing tasks. He started laughing when he realized where he was performing the task and quickly asked the tester to stay in the bathroom while he was working on the drawings. The tester did leave the room, but was summoned after two minutes to answer a question. Lev did not have a questions when tester returned to the room, but after 30 seconds asked if he could have more than five minutes to work. Over the next five minutes Lev asked the tester several times how to spell different words. The tester reminded Lev that words should not be included in the drawings, but did provide the proper spelling for the words requested. For a few minutes tester heard markers being banged against the side of the bathtub, and was summoned several times to provide spelling guidance. He was told several times that words should not be included in the drawing.
Drawing #6 After finishing his first bathtub drawing Lev was asked to work on the scary or sad assignment. He was very frustrated and unable to come up with an idea for his drawing. When the tester tried to leave the room she was immediately summoned back in. Once drawing began Lev asked again how to spell a word. The tester spelled the word but again reminded Lev that letters were not to be included in the drawing. After four minutes of working Lev completed the drawing with the tester in the room.
Drawing #7 The final environment used for testing was the garage located in Lev’s basement. It is a space that Lev does not frequent, one that he perceives to be “messy” and “dangerous”. The garage door was left open so there was good light and outdoor sound to make the space slightly less scary. When he was first taken to the garage he strongly protested claiming that the space was filled with “rats, black widows and poop”. He immediately claimed that he did not have to right surface to draw on and began whining that he did not know what to draw. After about one minute of sitting and reflecting he began working. Although he focused when he did get to work he began making guttural almost choking sounds while working
Drawing #8 Lev completed his final garage drawing in about four minutes. He worked quietly and independently
Working off of these basic assumptions explored by Lowenfeld, Sliver and others one can conclude that there is a correlation between children’s drawings and both their cognitive and emotional stages of development. The next step then, for the purpose of this study is to examine Lev’s eight drawings and interpret how the physical environment they were created in effected the end product. In an attempt to create somewhat of a “baseline” for interpretation of emotional intent as well as a marker for visual representative ability, the first set of drawings were created in a familiar, safe, and visually interesting space.
Lev’s first set of drawings were created at the kitchen counter, a place Lev would normally associate with doing homework and eating an occasional meal. The light in the room is bright and cheery and the walls are covered in art by both Lev and his siblings as well as adult artists. The “arts & crafts station” is located close by, and the space in general is used for various creative exercises both visual and culinary. When examining his first drawing, one sees the use of bright colors and smiley faces. Although it is difficult to decipher what the drawing depicts without Lev’s description, the audience can clearly interpret a positive expression of emotion.In Lev’s second drawing at the kitchen counter, Lev changed his color palette, relying more heavily on black. Smiling faces have been replaced by mysterious fanged creatures that roam through a dark and heavy night. The line work is much more chaotic than in the first drawing, and Lev changed his visual perspective from an plan to an elevation. Although the depiction is again not immediately obvious, one clearly reads the story as scary and unsettling. In both the positive and negative drawings that were created at the kitchen counter, Lev was able to work independently and follow the directions given at the start of the task.
For Lev’s second set of drawings he worked at his grandmothers dining room table in her NYC apartment. This is a place he associates with special occasions and family gatherings. He feels a general sense of excitement when there, which is usually manifest in “bouncing off the walls” types of behavior. While making his first drawing Lev asked if his letters were correct, and even when told by the tester that letters should not be included in the drawing, he continued to label his figures. He also began to question the reason for the drawing time requirements. When examining the first drawing done at his grandmothers house, one clearly sees positive emotions being expressed through the use of bright colors and smiley faces. Sunny skies, blossoming flowers and best friends clearly express the authors positive emotions.For Lev’s second drawing (sad or scary emotion), Lev once again changed his color palette to darker colors. Interestingly when he was asked to describe the picture he claimed it was his third best day when he was in the school art-room. Although one would probably read the general emotion in Lev’s painting as negative, he claimed it was the depiction of a good experience. His line work seems less focused and his details are much less complete than in his first drawing that day.
For his third set of drawings Lev was placed in a spare bathroom bathtub with the shower curtain closed. Although he initially thought the ideas was pretty funny, the tester quickly detected apprehension in Lev’s voice as he requested for the first time not to be left alone while he was working. In the first drawing Lev uses a dark color palette, but upon further investigation it is the main color of the Lego set he is describing. During the drawing Lev asked many times how to spell words even though the tester continued to repeat that words and letters should not be included in the drawing. Although most of the work was done independently, the continual question asking being done by Lev might have been an attempt to keep the tester close by and curb anxiety. The second drawing done in the bathtub shows Lev injuring himself at his grandmothers apartment. Interestingly he uses fairy bright colors and a smiley face to describe a negative emotion. Once again he was unable to follow the rules regarding the use of letters, although he did not ask for spelling direction from the tester.
For the final set of drawings Lev was taken to the garage located in the basement of his family home. Although the garage door was open, letting in light and familiar outdoor noises, the space was clearly unsettling to Lev. He immediately protested, claiming the garage was filled with , ”rats, black widows and poop”. For the first time during the testing he was clearly unhappy to be participating and looked for excuses why he could not work on the final sets of drawings. After some coaching from the tester Lev began his first drawing, which he described as his class picnic in the park. Interestingly the day (which he remembers as a positive experience) was described as the worst. Although the colors used were bright the face on the figure looks sad. Once again Lev used words to label the drawing.For his final drawing Lev drew himself in the garage drawing. Again there is conflicted information as the colors are bright and the figure appears to be smiling. There is very little detail provided, understandable as his drawing time was the shortest for the whole test. Even after listening to his description of the drawing it is very difficult to see what he has represented in his work.
After considering the work Lev produced as it relates to the physical space he was in when he created it, one can see a direct correlation between environment and the “success” of the emotions expressed. Essentially the more secure and familiar he was with the space, the more he was able to follow direction, clearly express emotion, and focus. His “best” work was done in a space he knew well, one that was associated with focused, independent work. As the environments became increasingly unfamiliar and unsettling, not only did Lev loose the ability to follow directions, but he began to confuse the emotions he believed he was trying to convey though his work.
Due to the fact that this study was brief and only included one subject, much of the discussion could be expanded upon with further research. For future studies, children from different backgrounds, cultures, ages, and abilities could be tested to further understand how the setting will effect the quality of the work produced. Additionally, this study mainly used various degrees of comfort level as perceived by the subject as the basis for categorizing the environment. In additional studies one could explore the effects of light, visual stimuli, noise, indoor vs. outdoor etc. in order to create a more complete picture.
How then do these finding have a practical application to what goes on in the art classroom and how can teachers use this information to better understand their students and support their growth and development? As has been described by Silver, children’s drawing can be used to shed light onto the emotional and cognitive condition of the student. The teacher then can help scaffold the student during these types of expressions by creating an environment in which the student will be able to most fully realize these expressions. The visual arts, like music and language, are tools for the student to express their inner thoughts and connect their personal experience to the rest of the world. Teachers should be mindful that the spaces they help create for their students can have a direct impact on these vital communication tools.