Drawing in the Context of a Project
Sylvia C. Chard
University of Alberta, Canada

Sources of Ideas for Drawing

Information represented in drawings can come from three main sources in the context of a project: memory of past experience, present reality, and creative speculation. Drawing in each of the three phases of project development generally taps into these sources of information: Phase 1 is more concerned with past experience, Phase 2 with present reality and observations, and Phase 3 with creative speculation.

Phase 1: Beginning a Project

In the first phase of a project when the children are discussing their own experiences, the representations that they draw are inspired by memories. The experiences they represent may be as recent as last week's shopping trip, or as distant as an airplane journey two years earlier. Drawing from memory often lacks specific detail, is simple, impressionistic, and approximate. Whatever the memory, many children will have difficulty remembering details to represent. It is usually easier to draw an item or process from observation than from memory. However, the data reduction involved in representing a memory can still serve the child and teacher well in reflecting the child's initial knowledge and experience with the topic of study. Paradoxically, drawing from memory can help many young children articulate complex ideas. For example, in the first phase of a project on pets, one five-year-old child drew two people, a car, and a cat in a box. Through his drawing he was able to explain the events depicted. He described how the family cat was being taken to the vet for shots and how his father asked him to accompany him to talk to the cat on the way and to comfort it because it was usually unhappy in the car. The drawing greatly helped the teacher and child together to reconstruct the scene and to describe it in words. This process helped the child share his experience with the other children and to write a suitable caption for his drawing. It is only when the details of such a story are clear that the teacher can gain insight into the child's understanding of the topic as a result of the experience.

Rich discussions occur when children are encouraged to share their experiences in detail. As the teacher invites children to explain the details of experiences represented in their drawings, he or she provides an active model of the careful and interested listener. This model helps the children learn to question each other in a similar way. The process of verbal sharing has also been described by Gallas (1994, pp. 15-16) as contributing to "the complex process that teachers go through to build a powerful, inclusive classroom community." This community-building is an essential aspect of good project work. Children will talk about the topic of study by themselves, at recess, after school, and at home with their parents because they are interested in it. The more the details in drawings are discussed at "sharing times" in the classroom, the easier it is for the teacher to help the children identify and discuss areas of confusion or gaps in their understanding. These discussions then provide the bases for formulating questions for later investigation.

The drawings completed in the early stages of a project represent children's early understanding of the topic. Early drawings can be compared with those of much more detail produced later in the project. By examining the drawings, both teachers and children can appreciate the evidence of progress made in understanding. A sequence of drawings completed at different times during the project can give children props or cues to help them discuss their learning in conferences with teacher and parents.

Phase 2: Developing a Project

In the second phase of the project the children extend and deepen their knowledge of the topic with a shared perspective from primary and secondary sources of information. During this phase the children's greater experience with real objects, events, processes, and roles is the major source of information for drawing. On field visits the children make sketches to remind them later of what they saw and to use as bases for further illustrations of the phenomena being studied. Because of time constraints in the field, these sketches are usually drawn economically, including only the most salient and significant details. Field sketches involve looking closely at the objects and people studied and making judgments about the parts of an object, the stages in a process, or the sequence of actions taken by a person. Sketches focus children's attention at the field site, which enriches and facilitates later discussion on return to the classroom.

Back in the classroom the children can elaborate their drawings with reference to photographs and secondary sources of information. They can undertake sustained observational drawing of artifacts collected during Phase 2. Increasingly detailed knowledge can be represented as it is collected. Sustained drawing enables children to study the nature of things-shapes, colors, textures, and other attributes. It encourages children to examine the relationship of parts to the whole of objects. Processes and roles can be represented in an "event map" (Hinchman,1997, p. 156), or drawing in which time and location are identified and labeled with words and measures.

Drawings of many different kinds can be included in project work. Sometimes a drawing can be simply executed at one sitting, at others it may be revisited and added to several times before it is complete. In the case of a revisited drawing, it may be of interest to the teacher as documentation of the progress made by the child. Photocopies made at different times in the drawing process can record the progressive addition of detail leading to the finished product. Such documentation is helpful to other children interested in this kind of long-term work.

Sometimes a drawing may stand alone with only a brief caption to indicate its significance to the study. At other times, there may be word labels added to a drawing indicating the technical terms for the parts of the object, the amount of time taken for processes depicted, or weights to indicate amounts of material shown, and so on. In project work there are many opportunities to mix media and means of communication to render the representation more accurate and informative. As the children grow older they can undertake increasingly complex combinations of representational strategies.

Most of the drawing in the second phase of a project is observational. However, it is important to note that younger children will mix observational drawing with memory or symbolic drawing, adding in figures or objects which they want represented there as well. For example, a group of five-year-olds drawing a bicycle in their classroom added suns to their pictures and people riding the bicycles. To judge from the children's conversation at the time, the tendency to provide these additions was probably provoked by the power of their association of bicycles with the outdoors and being with other people. The difference between the quality of the drawing of the bicycles and the quality of the added information was marked. The suns and added people tended to be more symbolic representations than realistic (e.g., a typical circle with rays for thesun and primitive "hairpin" or "sausage" figures for the people), in sharp contrast to the more mature and informative drawing of the bicycles themselves.

Drawing from observation is informative for the child. Close observation leads the child to notice details and discover relationships. Drawing can be further encouraged to increase analytical thinking. Throughout the range of different kinds of drawing, from drawings labeled with words to structural analyses labeled with short paragraphs to exploded drawings (drawings in which parts of an object are separated and enlarged), there are many ways for children to learn about the function of the parts of an object, the role of a person, the sequence of stages in a process, the layers in a cross-section, etc. Technical drawing of this kind is used in science text books-for example, in engineering or medicine-at every level of study because words and numbers alone are insufficient for conveying detailed and complex information. Even when an entity is too small to see with a microscope, scientists still speculate about structure in drawings and three-dimensional models.

Phase 3: Concluding a Project

In the third phase of a project most of the questions asked earlier in the study will have been answered in the course of field work or research with secondary sources of information. Although the time must come to bring the work of a project to a close, it is not because every question will have been answered and every research avenue exhausted. In fact, it is important for children not to think that they know everything there is to know about a topic by the end of a project. On the contrary, from project work children learn how the answer to any question provokes us to ask questions at a new level of understanding.

In the third phase of a project, some particularly interested children may want to speculate on what the answers to some of their new questions might be. An investigation of stores and markets today may give rise to questions about other kinds of buying and selling in the future. A study of rapid change over time lends itself naturally to speculation about the future. Predictions can be well expressed in speculative drawings. A study of a building, newspaper, or business may prompt designs of how things might look in a future time or other place.

Drawings, especially for the younger children, can be very helpful in enabling them to tell what they have learned. In one kindergarten class the children paired up with their fifth-grade buddies and shared three pictures they had selected from their project folders to explain what they had learned through their project work. The older children were to write what the young children told them about the items in the pictures. Elsewhere in a first-grade class, the children were invited to draw and label a picture to show as much as possible about what they had learned.

Drawing can also be decorative or abstract. It is helpful to have folders in which older children can keep their individual pieces of project work throughout the project, both completed items and pieces which are still being worked on. The covers of these folders can be decoratively illustrated with items of particular interest to the children. Sometimes children's work can be specially featured on paper with illuminated borders made up of miniature drawings depicting details referred to in the text. This kind of drawing makes the material more memorable to the child as well as making the content of the work more accessible to other children. Illuminated borders are sometimes designed by teachers for children's work, but in the context of a project, the process of designing and making the border can itself provide an important opportunity for the child to consolidate his or her own learning.

Creative written work such as poems or descriptive prose essays can sometimes benefit from an accompanying piece of art. This may involve the kind of drawing which is less informative or decorative than it is abstract and impressionistic. Such art may be primarily expressive of personal feelings or impressions rather than representing information.


In summary, project work drawings may be of many different kinds: rough sketches, plans for future work, parts of larger composite pieces of work, or scenery for a dramatic presentation. A few drawings may be discarded, having served their purpose (like rough drafts or "scratch" notes). Many drawings will be intended for worthier final destinations, taking their place in a book or report, on a poster, or in the child's individual project folder. They may be given to informants in recognition and appreciation for their help, or displayed in the library for others to learn from and enjoy. Above all, drawing for projects should be regarded as important school work, not taken home each day to disappear from the learning environment of the classroom but kept there until the project is over. Then a collection of their most memorable work can be sent home with the children so they can share it with their families.


Gallas, K. (1994). The languages of learning: How children talk, write, dance, draw, and sing their understanding of the world. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hinchman, H. (1997). A trail through leaves: The journal as a path to place. New York: W.W. Norton.

Next Section

Table of Contents