Jeremy E. Sawyer and Thalia Goldstein, “Can Guided Play and Storybook Reading Promote Children’s Drawing Development?,” Empirical Studies of the Arts 37, no. 1 (2018): 32–59.


Children’s drawings are implicated in their emotional, cognitive, artistic and semiotic development, raising the question of how early educators may best facilitate drawing development. This study compared three activities to determine their relative efficacy in promoting children’s drawing. Seventy-seven preschoolers participating in a Head Start program were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: storybook reading, block building or dramatic pretend play games (DPPG). Interventions were conducted over eight weeks, and children’s free drawings during each session were rated on five dimensions: creativity, talent, spatial complexity, color and human content. Taken together, the interventions produced significant growth in overall drawing, particularly for children who were initially more skilled at drawing. Comparisons indicated that storybook reading and block building generated significantly better overall drawing than DPPG. Storytime was more beneficial than DPPG for creativity, talent and spatial complexity, while block building was more beneficial than DPPG for children’s use of color.

Key Findings:

  • Children’s overall drawing performance improved over an eight-week period with the three guided play interventions. However, children who initially demonstrated a higher level of drawing skills improved their skills to a greater degree than those who initially demonstrated a lower level of drawing skills.
  • A comparison of the interventions indicated that storytime was the most effective of the three activities for overall growth in drawing skills.
  • Storytime was found to be more beneficial than dramatic pretend play games for the drawing dimensions of creativity, talent and spatial complexity. In addition, block building was found to be significantly more beneficial than dramatic pretend play games for the use of color in drawing.

Significance of the Findings:

  • The study suggests that interventions based on early childhood pedagogical activities may contribute to improving children’s drawing skills.
  • Since drawing is implicated in children’s emotional, cognitive and semiotic development with potential links to spatial and STEM learning, determining classroom-based activities that teachers may facilitate to enhance children’s drawing could be helpful for students’ overall development.
  • This study suggests that the interventions may have differential impacts on specific dimensions of children’s drawings that may be tied to features of each intervention.
  • The study contributes to existing literature by examining drawing development among a sample that is racially and ethnically diverse, attended an urban public-school and that comes from a low-socioeconomic household.


  • Participants were preschool children from a Head Start preschool program (with parental income requirements) ranging in age from four to five years old. Out of 91 students, 14 were excluded based on the attendance benchmark.
  • Students were randomly assigned to an intervention over the course of a summer program before beginning kindergarten. The intervention sessions took place three times per week over eight weeks. Each session included a dedicated time for the intervention and dedicated time for drawing before and after the intervention.
  • Researchers rated children’s free drawings during each session on five components ― creativity, talent, spatial complexity, color and human content ― and research assistants collected and coded the drawings based on these components.
  • Researchers analyzed children’s drawing development over the sessions of the interventions using multilevel models.

Limitations of the Research:

  • Student attendance and other logistical pressures limited students’ time in intervention sessions.
  • Not all drawings from students could be collected after each session.
  • There was no control group of students (all participants received intervention sessions) and therefore it is difficult to discern the effects of potential cognitive maturation.
  • The study consisted of 77 participants at one preschool program, a relatively small sample size.
  • There were fewer participants in one of the condition interventions compared to the others.
  • The interventions were only conducted for eight weeks.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Is guided exposure to well-drawn illustrations within meaningful narratives critical to the storytime intervention’s effects on students’ drawing development?
  • What other, integrated classroom-based activities may enhance visual arts learning and skills?
  • Would the same interventions have a different impact on a different sample of students with different demographics?
  • What specific aspects of the interventions contributed to the children’s drawing development?