Making marks, making meaning: the importance of mark-making in early learning

Children need to be able to experiment with making marks from an early age using a range of resources as well as their sense and their bodies. There is a wide set of skills that children need to master in order to be able to use mark-making tools effectively, such as dexterity and coordination, and purely cognitive skills like dealing with symbols. Parents, carers and teachers all need to get on board and become more fascinated by children’s mark-making journeys and provide a wealth of opportunities to celebrate achievements and development of these skills.

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Within the context of an active play-based learning environment, children will have many ways to represent their thoughts through music or drama, while others might be drawn to so-called graphic representation. Sometimes marks are made purely as a physical activity, while at other times they are used to convey a narrative. Either way, children derive meaning from this, helping them establish an independent existence.

The picture above is from one of our children, which demonstrated a strong interest in writing. She was keen to pick up any writing tool, a pencil or a pen, and use it to write her name on the page and then make marks that represented either a number or a letter. She was keen to give clear meaning to her drawings. In particular, when asked by the teachers to interpret her marks the child said they were ‘schedules’.

As it turns out, these are schedules of what is happening in the nursery. They are the schedules of what Jack, Carley and the other teachers normally do. Each teacher’s schedule has the letter corresponding to their names, and so ‘J’ stands for Jack and there was a cross for Jack’s schedule showing where he needed to go.

The child in question also did a different, colorful schedule that was her own schedule representing what she did with her friends. She was good at explaining that the different colors represented the different things in nursery.

‘This is me and my friends and our schedule of what we do in nursery. Look that is me and my friend together,’ she told us and drew a connective line between two circles.

Ten ways to support your child’s mark-making skills:

  1. Show an active interest in their mark-making.
  2. Encourage them to use tools they feel comfortable with – e.g. crayons, chunky pencils or felt tips that are actually softer.
  3. Encourage your child to interpret their marks and tell you the story behind them; something that is a scribble to an adult can be meaningful and elaborate to a child.

  4. Role-model writing by writing down shopping lists, writing cards and letters with them or drawing with them. It demonstrates to them that writing has a purpose.

  5. Ensure children feel secure enough to ‘have a go’, learn new things and be adventurous.

  6. Give opportunities for children to work alongside creative adults so they see different ways of expressing and communicating ideas / different uses of materials.

  7. Make sure you show that you value what children can do and pay attention to children’s own ideas, rather than only expecting them to reproduce somebody else’s ideas (including your own, or those coming from known authors or other people in their lives).

  8. Providing maps and diagrams to support investigation.

  9. Using mathematical names (2- or 3-dimensional) when describing marks and objects.

  10. Talking about maps and routes and how children’s marks illustrate these.

Further Reading