Draw the world to know the world

Jinan K B

bus-1 Drawing is the playing that children do on two-dimensional spaces, which is where modern humans are located most of the time. In the three-dimensional space, i.e., in the real world children play provided they have their way. But when they are forced into the two dimensional world of the book, they draw. Drawing comes naturally to them, unlike writing. Children draw on walls, paper, floor, water, any space. They draw with whatever they can get hold of. Apart from the pen and pencil, their own fingers come to help while drawing on a plate, misty windows, etc.

Through their drawings children are able to understand how the world looks – the form, what happens around them – both in the natural world and the social world.

Why, what, and how children draw is dictated by biology, nature, or life, provided adults don’t interfere. The same is the case with play.

We were able to observe this natural behaviour in children during the three years of our initiative called ’Re-imagining schools’ at a school near Pune. From 2011 June till 2014 August, some of us were fortunate to take part in this initiative which was based on how and what children learn naturally.

In the first month itself we made three significant observations, all involving drawing incidents.

Genesis of this exploration
One child was drawing in a book, a few minutes later another child came in and started drawing along with her, then yet another child joined in. After a few minutes, the child who started the drawing left, leaving the others to continue.

We learned several lessons from this incident. Foremost is that children by nature are co-operative, are not possessive about ‘their’ drawing, can accommodate others. Respect for autonomy was evident from the fact that there was no objection either joining the drawing or leaving. Seeing this one wonders how we end up becoming possessive, individualistic, and selfish adults.

We also noticed that the children were drawing anywhere and everywhere – the floor, wall, ground, table, slate, paper and were drawing using their fingers, water, chalk, stick, pencil, paint, chalk powder, rangoli colours. So we consciously made several changes to the ‘classroom’ and to our rigid minds. We replaced the blackboard and painted the lower half of the walls black to enable children to draw large pictures. The blackboard also found place on the floor!

The children know clearly what they are drawing and there is always a concrete topic/subject that they draw. One day we saw two children moving around and drawing on the floor all over the class. They were telling the other children that they were drawing water flowing from a tap.

As there were no rules and boundaries, children were constantly surprising us with all kinds of drawings. It is so natural for them to be spontaneous and inventive.

Discovering the importance of drawing
From the thousands of drawings that we studied it seems to us that children draw what they see very much like children speak what they hear. Just as there is a process involved in learning to speak, it appears that drawings are a means to see better, to comprehend.

Comparing writing and drawing
Writing is not a cognitive tool. It is primarily a communication tool. The importance given to learning writing skills denies the possibility for the development of drawing as a tool for observation. Biologically we are not designed to read or understand the world/the context/knowledge, but to explore the world directly using our senses. Drawing helps in enhancing observation as it makes us observe what we draw more consciously.

Due to the introduction of literacy and schooling much before the children are ready, their cognitive process gets rewired. Experiencing the world directly enables us to be in the three dimensional world; literacy takes us to the two dimensional world. Once naming gets more important, the cognitive processes related to the senses die and thinking and reasoning take over. As children get entrenched in the linguistic world, the world of objects recedes from their vision. They stop being present to the world around. From the realm of timelessness they get caught up in the clutches of time.

So what is the potential of drawing?
When children draw, what is at work is their natural tendency to make sense of the world based on the natural cognitive system. The tools for learning, which are our senses, naturally get awakened as they engage with the world. So apart from sharpening the tools they also develop various qualities and skills to learn about the world. Observation demands attention and concentration to be developed. This leads to further interest in seeing details, how things happen, what materials are in use, etc.

The stages or actions in drawing can be observation, abstraction, detailing, refinement, reflection, imagination, description, articulation, composition or space organization, analysis dexterity, and of course creativity.

bus-2 Drawing also enables abstraction from three dimension to two dimension. Converting a three dimensional object into a two dimensional one is a very important cognitive act. The abstraction that happens is quite remarkable and this is very difficult for an educated person to accomplish. It seems that children, before they are caught up by the rational framework, are able to see without the need to interpret what they are seeing. They are able to just observe and draw. The educated go through three steps. They see, think, and draw and quite often they are not able to draw, whereas children are able to draw easily.

What do children draw?
Children draw what they see. This has become very clear to us by studying the thousands of drawings that children have done. Isn’t it interesting that children initially draw only the faces of human beings, and a line to represent the body, whereas of all other objects such as animals, vehicles, birds, etc., they draw the profile?

What children draw shows the process of abstraction and comprehension of the world they are engaging with. Three dimensional objects like house, bus, car, etc., get represented initially as one plane and these complex figures get represented gradually showing their three dimensionality.

Enabling drawing
When we see what children have drawn, we should keep in mind that we don’t correct, comment, or even praise the child. Just let children draw. Perhaps we could create an environment for them to draw where they want with what they want.

Drawing is like a vaccination given to the child who will be schooled out from the real world of experience which can be felt and sensed into the imagined world of language, full of concepts, definitions, and theories.

Drawing needs to be developed as a functional tool which any one can learn, which also means that drawing needs to be distanced from art, supposedly an activity only for the gifted or talented. The way bad handwriting is accepted, ‘bad drawing’ also needs to be accommodated so as to encourage everyone to draw. All children draw but then at some point most stop drawing. Only the encouraged ‘artists’ continue. But everyone learns to write, which is a much more complicated task. The adults around us must have done something that we are now scared of drawing.

Our work with children shows a strong connection between what children draw, play, and experience. What they draw also shows distinct aspects of what they see, wish for, and want to describe. So let us drop our inhibitions with regard to letting children draw and allow them to draw to their hearts’ content and grow up to be sensible, sensitive and compassionate adults.

The author considers himself to be a victim of modern education, cognitively rewired to understand the written word instead of the real world. He has been living with illiterate people to understand the cognitive system based on the natural propensity of any living being to make sense of the world. He has studied how children ‘learn’ and how the schooling process damages the natural cognitive system. His focus as of now is to find ways of creating space for children to awaken the natural cognitive system and to help the cognitively damaged to recover the natural learning process. He is working on a book – ‘Seeing with hands, the cognitive importance of drawing’ based on 3 years of observation on what children draw. He can be contacted at jinankb@gmail.com. www.existentialknowledgefoundation.weebly.com, www.re-cognition.org.