Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

An Overview of Art and Child Development

From Birth to 11 Years

Learning about art, craft and design are important childhood experiences. They contribute to perceptual, creative, cognitive and emotional development. Through art activities children learn about themselves, others and the world around them. They develop the skills they need to share their experiences with others through making images and objects which are emotionally, aesthetically and intellectually satisfying.

Art communicates through the visual ‘language’ of line, shape, form, structure, colour, pattern, texture, proportion, scale and space. Art emphasises self-expression but equally calls for an appreciation and understanding of the work of others including those from different times and different cultures.

Black and white sketch of a cliff scene.
Pembrokeshire Cliffs by Kyra Cane

Because children begin to develop as soon as they are born, the Overview begins with these earliest years. The Overview is presented in three age-related sections:

  • 5 to 7 years
  • 7 to 9 years
  • 9 to 11 years.

Download the Understanding Art resource to look at these age groups in more detail.

Today there is an understanding that art by children has its own value. It is also recognised that work by a five-year old is radically different to work by a nine-year old. There is a sequence of development that can be identified, particularly in children’s drawings. It is helpful to have a picture of the progression from one stage to the next and to value the special character of each age group. There will be an overlap between the age groups depending on the experiences, environment and abilities of the individual child.

Art activities have an affinity with play. Both involve the imagination, both are active, both involve learning about oneself and the surrounding world.

Children’s readiness to be involved in play-like activities offers teachers many ways into new experiences, particularly in the expressive arts of music, drama, creative writing and visual art. It can also lead into an enquiring, experimental, problem solving approach in other subject areas such as science, design and technology, mathematics. For the youngest children it is the key to learning. Jean Piaget, the Swiss pioneer of child development work, said that ‘play teaches children to master the world’.

Play is very diverse but it is possible to identify some types of play that are particularly valuable in relation to learning:

  • Sensory play. Learning through the senses and developing sensory awareness
  • Exploratory play. Using the senses to find out about the world
  • Manipulative play. Experimenting with tools, media and materials. Gaining a degree of ‘mastery’ in certain making techniques
  • Designerly play. Making objects or ‘props’ to use in other types of play
  • Emotional play. Using play as a kind of theatre for acting out emotions, experiences and situations
  • Identification play. Playing roles and becoming a character
  • Social play. Before the age of three children tend to play alongside each other rather than together. Later playing together can lead to the exploration of social worlds that are partly separate from adult society. Children develop their own rules, codes of conduct and understanding of fairness and sharing