Children’s drawings. A window to the world of life forces

Raphaela Tampe

Children’s drawings are similar worldwide (Arno Stern). They display an archetypal graphical language which is neither taught nor learned but flows out of the interior of each human being.

The drawings express laws which are connected with the development and age of the child. These formative forces work on the physical body in the first seven-year period from top to bottom: from the nervous and sensory system (head) through the rhythmical system (chest) to the metabolic and limb system (abdomen, arms and legs).

This development of drawing can be divided into three phases which are connected with the development of the physical systems.

First drawing phase: the etheric forces as the original creators

In the first three years of life, the etheric forces are at work shaping the head and the sensory and nervous system and they appear in the children’s drawings as dynamic curves and swirls which dance across the page and depart again. In this first phase the children are also called dancers in space. “They have not yet arrived on earth and are spread out in their surroundings,” writes Helga Zumpfe in her Tagebuch der kleinen Kinder (Diary of small children).

Two archetypal forms become visible in these initial traces of movement: the straight and the curved line. Michaela Strauss refers in Von der Zeichensprache des kleinen Kindes (The language of drawing of the small child) to the “building blocks of early childhood drawings” which take the shape of a “rotary, spiralling force and an ascending and descending force”. The rotary, spiralling force forms the circle and the swing between up and down, left and right the cross. The circle “first appears as the laborious joining up of a curved line,” explains Margret Constantini in an article in this journal. Closing the circle is a significant process and the expression of the first perception of the I. There is a change in consciousness at about the third year of life and the first appearance of self-awareness lights up in the child who begins to refer to themselves as “I”.

They have a sense of inner and outer and with the circle differentiate themselves from their surroundings. In doing so, an inner soul space arises from which the child then senses their way into the world.

The cross is the result of a pendulum movement: finding and orienting ourselves on earth. The pendulum movement soon consolidates into top and bottom (vertical), left and right (horizontal). In bringing together these cardinal directions, the flow of these forces combines into a cross. These drawings reveal how the child finds their way from the initial rotating, floating experience of space, from a dream-like consciousness, into an initial experience and a first perception of the I at the intersection of the cross.

Second drawing phase: obtaining a feeling for the body and organising it

The house – which already appears as the cosmic spherical house (Strauss) in the circle – represents the way the child perceives themselves. Sensory feelers grow out of the circular form: the child senses their way into the world from their bodily house. These shapes are called cephalopods.

These “feelers” soon turn into intimations of arms, hair and legs all of which at the beginning are still attached like appendages to the head. Only gradually does a body form under the head, do the arms migrate to below the circle and are placed on the body.

In parallel, the pendulum movement gives rise to the “stick person” as Inge Brochmann describes it in Die Geheimnisse der Kinderzeichnungen (The secrets of children’s drawings). The archetypal forces of movement which have taken shape in the circle and cross are interrelated, ordering formative forces; they combine in the human form and come to expression in the experience of our own physicality. In the physical shaping of the rhythmical system they express themselves as flowing, circulating and geometrical forms. The circular force comes to expression in so-called organic or respiratory shapes, “lung and heart appear in fluid, spiral-shaped and rounded forms” (Brochmann); the cross principle is revealed in static geometrical elements connected with the development of the spine and everything that provides support and structure to the flowing and streaming elements.

Third drawing phase: obtaining a sense of the body and initial portrayals

In the third drawing phase, our “invisible architect” works its way through the limbs and the metabolic system. Arms, fingers, feet  and legs are emphasised and shapes reminiscent of metabolic organs appear.

Spoked wheels are a particular form of expression. They seem to indicate a sense of the solar plexus. In the spoked wheel the sensing rays do not go outwards as in the cephalopod but remain inside the circle: “In this way they now sense their own inner soul space,” Zumpfe thinks.

What is now explored through the feelings is “an initial perception of our own condition and our connection with our own physicality”. The life sense, the sense of how we feel no longer directs its sensitive exploration only at the surroundings but towards itself. The solar plexus (spoked wheel) is assigned to the life sense.

As the inner power of imagination develops, the pictures towards the end of the third drawing phase are characterised by what the child perceives of the external world through their senses. Once the body has been formed, a part of the etheric forces are released for the forces of thinking, consciousness and imagination. Illustration increases in the drawings of the child and the body-related drawing arising from unconscious depths dries up. The still floating figures arrive on earth, the bodily house is no longer tied to the body and becomes a house in which people live. The trees are rooted in the earth and the sky becomes the home of the sun, stars and moon. The drawing clearly show the extent to which the child has arrived on earth and in their physical body.

We can feel that a commotion in the body is revealed in the drawings; the life forces are involved in pain and healing.

Children’s drawings give an insight into the processes in which the child experiences and expresses themselves. It is fascinating to look at a range of pictures from a child. The feeling can arise that something can be observed in them alongside their physical development which clearly extends beyond coming to terms with the physical body: “That a child has experiences of and encounters with beings which we adults lost a long time ago, but which they want to tell us about in words and images.” (Zumpfe 2000).

Children’s drawings must be looked at with inner regard, forefeeling what comes to expression in them. The child expresses themselves unconsciously from the depths of their body and cannot yet grasp it themselves. Asking a child what they intend to draw is nothing but a distraction – the answer lies hidden. The question tears the small child out of the unconscious process of creation and forces them into untimely reflection.

About the author: Raphaela Tampe is a student in her probationary year at the Waldorf Nursery Education Seminar in Stuttgart.