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On Your Marks

On Your Marks

There seems to be a great deal of focus on children being able to write and very little emphasis on the route children need to take to be able to form recognisable letters. This is known as mark making - creating different patterns, lines and shapes using a variety of resources on a variety of textures and materials. It may be referred to, by those who do not really understand the process, as scribbling, but it is actually an important step in learning to write. Mark making can also refer to forms made with hands, paintbrushes, sticks etc.

I feel it is very important to note here, that the term mark making is not approved of by everyone in Early Years, as some people feel it gives the impression that pictorial representation is inferior to early writing skills. I wish to emphasise that is not the case here and I advocate equal value to pictorial representations and to marks that children consider “their writing”.

We all have a natural desire to express ourselves artistically, to leave something of ourselves for others to see. We all have a natural desire to communicate with each other by recording things that mean something to us. Children's attempts at this expression are the beginnings of recording and sharing and representing their ideas graphically. Our response to these marks can influence how confident children will be in their abilities.

When children realise that marks can be used symbolically to carry meaning, in much the same way as the spoken word, they begin to use marks as tools to make their thinking visible. Mark making gives children the opportunity to express themselves and explore new materials other than pen and paper. The wonderful thing about mark making is that it is not just bound to the indoors - the outdoors affords plenty of exciting opportunities for children to explore the natural world and get mark making!


Initially, when children start to experiment with making marks, it is a blend of writing and drawing as the children engage in the process and develop new skills. By the time children are three, most, but not all, will start to understand that there is a difference between writing and drawing and may begin to role play different writing activities especially if these have been modelled to them. Recently, two children were very busy playing outside and I observed that they were making marks on a small notepad. I could hear the conversation Child L “I'm writing my shopping list - got carrots, pineapple, cucumber, sweetcorn, tuna, cheese”. Child J “Where will you go shopping?” Child L “Hmmmm, don't know”.  I thought perhaps I could add something here so I suggested “well maybe Tesco or Sainsburys?” Child L “Yes Tesco. We need it for our dinner”.

This is an example of where children have observed the use of writing in everyday life - it is crucial that we, as Early Years Practitioners, scaffold their learning of different activities where writing is used.

“we have discovered that the child's first graphical gestures are not motivated by the graphical product, but by the desire to imitate adults, particularly parents, and teachers. In fact, they imitate the gesture and not the result. To behave like an adult is the child's most primitive and intense source of joy.”

Children, aided by adults, progress inside their own Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky,1978) and gradually begin to master abilities that have not been developed until that moment, abilities such as scribbling. The adult's role in this process is vital: it is only through the meaningful relationship that the child has established with the adults in the setting that graphical abilities can flourish and develop completely. I always say, that the way we react to children's creations can make or destroy them. If children see that we value these marks and scribbles and drawings, they will be encouraged to continue to express themselves. They will embrace creativity and gain confidence. Giving the children in your settings the freedom to draw means that they can create anything they want. What they draw allows you to see what’s going on in their mind, and also lets them grow in their uniqueness and originality. We should always show interest making comments about what they are drawing so that they feel good about their work and are more confident about themselves. Comments about the drawings may be better than questioning the children as that can be stressful for some.

Why is mark making so important?

A step towards writing…

Research has shown that mark making is crucial for a child’s development and learning. Margaret Brooks explains how “Through drawing [children] are not only able to see what they are thinking, they are also able to play around with and transform their ideas” (p.319). It not only teaches young children how to hold a pen correctly, but it also prepares them for writing and develops their handwriting skills.

When we are drawing, our imaginations are free to run wild and go anywhere and so for children, drawing is a wonderful way to increase and develop their imaginations. When children are imagining, they are able to form their own scenarios and play pretend, thus becoming more independent and advanced. We should all encourage imagination because it is a show of freedom of expression and creativity, two major components any child should have.

Creative development:

Drawing is a very positive way for children to express their emotions. For all of us, some emotions are very powerful and overwhelming - imagine being a young child who does not understand those emotions, cannot put them into words and does not yet realise that emotions are natural and perfectly normal. Drawing is a safe way for children to be able to express those powerful and potentially quite scary emotions and is a very positive outlet for those.

“early visual representations and expressions are important – namely because, when they represent anything (using a mark, a shape, an action or an object) they make something stand for something else, and through expression (in speech, action or images) they show emotion”. (Matthews 2003 introduction)

Mark making enables children to express themselves graphically and to create their own stories, it represents their thoughts and ideas. As they develop these creative skills, their marks become more complex and sophisticated along with their developing language skills as they recite their stories to us.

Cognitive development


Cognitive skills include attention, short term memory, long term memory, logic and reasoning, and auditory processing, visual processing, and processing speed. They are the skills the brain uses to think, learn, read, remember, pay attention, and solve problems. Children acquire the skills through thought, their own experiences - schemas and assimilation - and the senses. Through their drawings and marks, children demonstrate their thought processes and what they are feeling, so what they choose to draw, the patterns they use, and the stories they portray helps them build their knowledge and visual skills.

the more often a child was provided the opportunity to mark or scribble, the more a child engaged in drawing and the more complex was the child’s drawing behavior.” (p4) C Dunst E Gorman.

Jean Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development. Two are relevant to the early years and these are:

  • Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and the manipulation of objects.

  • Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7. During this stage, children develop memory and imagination. They are also able to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future.

Mark making as a tool for thinking and learning:

Mark making affords the young child the ability to symbolise meaning, play with ideas and make new connections. Children in Piaget’s preoperational stage of cognitive development will be using mark making to support their ability to remember (hold ideas in the mind) and to communicate those ideas with others and with themselves. Lev Vygotsky suggested that cognitive development is a social skill and shared with a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)  - someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept - to support those ideas. I feel it is important to note here that the MKO does not have to be an adult, but can be other children. As Greg Bottrill says “Children are far better teachers than you and I will ever be.” (p44)

The process of making marks extends and makes visible their inner thought processes. introduces the child to thinking in two dimensions and therefore supports the eventual use of the more abstract symbol system of writing.

By giving children the opportunity to explore different mediums of mark making, it engages them in sensory play and allows them to discover new exciting materials. This helps to enhance a child’s critical thinking, brain development and language development, which gives them the ability to build towards more complex learning tasks in the future.

With a recent spell of hot weather, we had plenty of receptacles filled with water. The children not only played in this water but immersed themselves in it - this led to some children having soggy socks and they proceeded to make a pattern of footprints! There was much discussion about the sensation of the wet socks and the crisscross patterns that were being made.


Physical development:

When children are making these early marks and drawings, they are practicing how to hold a pencil and control what they are doing with their muscles. This develops fine motor skills and hand eye coordination. The development of holding a pencil correctly, in a pincer grip, will affect handwriting skills in the future.

In order to develop this control, children need to develop their gross motor skills which involve the large muscles in arms, legs and torso. Mark making affords itself to large movements using arm muscles to design large scale creations. Recently, the children in one setting I observed really enjoyed writing with chalk - holding the chalk with the whole hand can really strengthen the palmar grasp. They also decided that they would “paint the walls with water” using different size paint brushes. The children enjoyed playing with this way of making marks and the freedom that allowed them to create on a bigger canvas.  Giving the children in your setting plenty of opportunity to practice their physical movements will enable them to control their fine motor skills.

How could we encourage children to make marks?

As with most things the environment is crucial. Are there plenty of opportunities for children to be able to draw, scribble and write around your setting? Are they able to access a variety of medium and resources to be able to explore and develop their creativity? Are there opportunities for both small and large scale creations to develop and practice those necessary skills?

It is perhaps not surprising to remember that children need to see the point of something. I don't know about you, but if I'm asked to just draw something or write something, my mind goes completely blank, I cannot think of anything! If we are forcing our children to write because we need their name in a card or something or we need to write an observation about mark making, we are missing the point! That is of no interest or relevance to the child and there is a real danger that we will signal that writing is a chore, something that has to be done and is therefore, not a lot of fun.

However, if children can see writing has a reason for being done, a purpose, they want to write. I think it is important to reiterate here, that it has to be purposeful to the children not something that has purpose to us, the adults,  and therefore has no meaning to the children.

In an emotionally secure environment, where their creativity is valued and respected, children will often become prolific mark makers. This is particularly true when the purpose and the means of representation are within their control. Boys’ mark making tends to flourish when the pressure is off, the choice is theirs and the motivation arises from a specific desire to communicate. They are more often to be seen making marks outside than in the classroom – it may be that they need to make a sign for a den that they have built, or want to keep a record of the number of snails that they have found – but the motivation is always the same the marks are meaningful and relevant to them as individuals. They are spontaneous and not imposed or directed. (P7)

In her book Planning in the Moment with Young Children, Anna Ephrage takes this a step further by suggesting that every time a child shows some interest in writing, the adult should offer to write for the child. She states that as the adult is actually doing the writing, the children lose any anxiety of getting things wrong  and they will engage fully in the process of telling you what they want you to write for them and in no time will be writing for themselves.

I think the key to creating an environment where children are actively engaged in making marks is to ensure that the children have plenty of opportunities to express themselves graphically. Having an environment that is fully resourced with different types of medium in various areas will encourage the children to start putting their thoughts and imaginings on paper, walls, whiteboards, pavements and anywhere else appropriate! Valuing those marks empowers children and shows them that they have meaning and that writing is not a chore but has real purpose and they have something to say.


Bottrill, G. (2018). Can I Go & PLay Now? Rethinking the Early Years. Sage Publishing Ltd. London.

Brooks, M. (2009). Drawing, visualisation and young children's exploration of "big ideas." International Journal of Science Education, 31(3), 319–141.

CELLReviews Volume 2, Number 2

The National Strategies | Early Years Mark Making Matters – Young children making meaning in all areas of learning and development

Ehphrage A. (2018) Planning in the Moment with Young Children: A Practical Guide for Early Years Practitioners and Parents. Routledge. Abingdon.

Drawing and Painting: Children and Visual Representation (Zero to Eight) 2nd Edition, by John Matthews 2003

5,6,7,8 - supporting maths development

5,6,7,8 - supporting maths development

The Journey Begins

The Journey Begins