Mark-making is as much a dynamic motor activity as reaching, grasping and manipulating objects. But think about it! It is the only dynamic motor activity that leaves a ‘trail’ or a mark behind! This is literally mesmerising for very young children, and with the use of colourful and bright crayons and marker pens, mark-making can become a truly rewarding activity.
And then there is reading – this is also a dynamic process. Some children can read at a very early age, but most children’s brains cannot integrate visual, verbal and auditory information rapidly enough until a child reaches five years or above. Mark-making is hugely important in emergent reading because it activates the brain in a way that fully supports future reading. We will be far more successful in teaching children to read if we offer plenty of mark-making along with shared reading of favourite stories, and wait for that natural rite of passage when children are developmentally ready for reading.
Brain activity in mark-making
Try giving a child a mark-making tool that doesn’t leave a mark. The reward system in the brain is not activated and it is highly likely that the child will abandon the task within a few moments. The feedback from ‘marking’ is lacking. Only tools that produce a visual effect result in a child wanting to leave more marks. And the brighter the colour, the thicker the mark, the more the child will want to carry out this extraordinarily satisfactory motor activity.
There is a powerful activation of the reward system in the brain each time a child picks up and uses a mark-making tool. This will encourage them to try ever more complex ‘drawings’ over a longer duration of time. And this is where automaticity will take place – mark-making becomes automatic, and the child is able to make marks repeatedly without effortful thought, building up the letter recognition, drawing and writing with more and more ease.
Mark-making and reading
As already said, there is a powerful link between mark-making and reading. When children see the ‘trail’ made by a mark-making tool, be it a letter, a shape or anything else, the motor activity switches on a part of the brain that supports memory and cognitive thinking. The dynamic motor activity influences the brain activity, supporting the memory; children will remember the way something felt as they ‘drew’ it.
That isn’t all. When children write letters by hand there is more brain activity, and they show better letter recognition skills than when they look at letters or trace them or use a keyboard (James & Engelhardt 2012). Interestingly, it does not matter about any variability in the shape or size of letters children make, as it appears that this is a crucial component of their emergent recognition and understanding of letters.
Mark-making in the setting
Happily, we have plenty of research1 about what sorts of writing instruments and backgrounds best elicit mark-making. Here they are. Give them a go in your setting!
Crayons and magic markers are associated with more complex and mature drawing compared with pencils. The more pronounced, bold and bright the mark-making tool, the more a child will make marks, and also the more advanced the pre-drawing behaviour becomes. Offer brightly coloured, thick and thin marker pens/crayons, ones that leave a satisfyingly noticeable mark.
Paper that already has images on it not only elicits significantly more mark-making than blank paper but also encourages more complex mark-making. Provide paper with images of people, animals, shapes or nature. Draw them yourselves or find paper with images already on them.
Of all images on paper, it is human figures or animal images that result in the most complex and frequent mark-making2. Make sure you have paper with images placed in areas around the setting, e.g. role play.
Writing on a slant helps children engage in mark-making when they are using markers or crayons. For some reason, this does not apply for using pencils.
Structured and collaborative activities as opposed to unstructured child-led activities also elicits more lengthy and increasingly complex mark-making. As rewarding as child-led mark-making can be, children are more likely to join in and focus longer on an adult-led, captivating mark-making activity than on their own.
In short, the more drawing opportunities children have, the more they mark and scribble, and the quicker they make that transition to more complex drawing. And the more children are given plenty of fun opportunities to mark or scribble, the more intent and engaged they become in mark-making. Young children learn to enjoy mark-making which increases their skill in emergent writing, strengthens the visual and motor regions of the brain seen in letter processing and production, and facilitates their acquisition of reading.
It’s a win-win situation!
- Dunst C, Gorman E. 2009 Development of Infant and Toddler Mark-making and Scribbling
- James & Engelhardt . 2012 The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children
About the author:
Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary and early years sectors. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 where she developed a keen interest in early intervention, leading her into international work for the early years sector. Helen cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she wrote her first book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners” for which she won the Professional Books category at the 2018 Nursery World Awards, and “Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years”, published by Early Years Alliance in June 2019. She also writes articles for early years magazines, such as Nursery World, Early Years Teacher Organisation, QA Education, Teach Early Years, and Early Years Educator.
Helen is the co-founder and Education Director at Arc Pathway, an early years platform for teachers and parents.
Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.