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The Importance of Young Children's Mark-making: Beginnings, Context, Meaning and Mathematics

Definition of mark making

Mark making is a generic term used to describe young children's own self initiated marks which may be explored through their actions or forms of symbolic languages such as drawing or writing or mathematics. Matthews (2003) states;


'Children as they begin to draw and paint, make an intellectual journey which has musical, linguistic, logical and mathematical as well as aesthetic aspects'


It is vital to understand that children make marks in all areas of learning and these marks are meaningful and precious records of their thought processes.

In England in the guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2008) mark making is encouraged and seen as a vital tool for communication. The recent DCSf publication, Mark Making Matters (2008) confirms the importance of the marks that young children make not only in literacy but there is a clear emphasis on valuing children's mathematical graphics. The Williams review (2008) further emphasised the importance of mark making and children's developing understanding of abstract mathematical symbols.

The Environment

The first step in supporting children's mark making is providing an environment that encourages their graphical explorations into all areas of learning. Children need lots of opportunities to make marks.

Everyday at Redcliffe Children's Centre in Bristol the children who attend our two nurseries and family groups have the opportunity to make marks of any kind with a variety of implements. On a typical day one can see the children outside using sticks in the mud making shapes and lines and curves. Others might be using our outside mark-making trolley selecting chunky chalks to draw on the concrete. Some children prefer paint and paint on the outside double easel. Underneath the canopy there is always a table with a builders tray and children sit with their friends underneath the canopy busily chatting and using their fingers to experiment in the tray which is full of some messy sensory material like shaving foam or baby lotion or cornflour gloop. Inside, the graphics area invites children to choose a pen, pencil and other writing and drawing material. There is a variety of equipment placed in the graphics area including stamps, wooden numbers, a number line, raffle tickets, calculator, envelopes, calendars and diaries. Each child has a pigeon hole where they can keep their special treasures or receive items and messages from other children and their key person. We have noticed that some children prefer large pieces of paper that they can use on the floor, where they make larger marks, maps and include mark making in their play. They tell stories as they draw. Paper and pencil and clipboards are everywhere so if children want to use them they are readily available. In every area of the nursery there are small child sized sturdy whiteboards; these are very popular with the children. There is also a large interactive whiteboard which provides another medium for children to explore lines and circles and all marks.

What do these marks mean?

From this environment where children have rich opportunities to make marks the children produce 'millions of marks'. However it is not enough for children just to produce marks; teachers and practitioners need to know what these marks might mean. If we do not understand their significance then we might undervalue the children's marks and discard them. Many adults seem only to value drawings that look like a picture of something in the world, scribbles are often ignored. The first step in developing a pedagogy that supports children's marks is to understand the very free mark making of lines and arcs and curves that young children first make. Adults often see these first marks as a deficit model but Malcholdi (1998) strongly states that these first marks are a 'developmental land mark'. Matthews (1999) adds to this by confirming that,


'Scribbles are products of a systematic investigation rather than haphazard actions'

Child's drawing

When children explore and experiment with mark making tools and utensils they are also developing their thoughts. Sometimes we can catch their thoughts and this is important to understand the processes they are going through and the significance of these marks. Sensitive observation of children making marks is vital to understand what children are meaning. Jenny (senior practitioner) below is observing Laura and writing notes; she is in conversation with Laura as she draws. Later she will analyse the notes and put it in Laura's mark making folder. Keeping a record of each child's development is essential because this shows that children are progressing and parents can be included in the dialogue of supporting and valuing children's own ideas in mark making.

Child's drawing

Young Children's Writing

From the late 1960's (Goodman, 1968; Clay, 1975; Newman, 1984) there was a wave that lasted twenty years where young children's emergent writing was valued and the practice of thousands of teachers in this country and abroad changed. Teachers started to appreciate and support children's own attempts at writing as a crucial development towards standard writing. There is now the beginnings of this kind of thinking in mathematics. Hughes (1986) looked at the difficulties young children had with mathematics and his clinical studies were one of the first to reveal that children as young as three and four could represent quantities in their own way. Hughes' research only looked at the forms that children used when they represented quantities. Later a large significant study by Carruthers and Worthington (2005) opened this up to show the many ways children were developing their mathematical ideas in all areas of mathematics not only quantities.

Child's drawing

Alice often practices writing A for Alice. The small child sized sturdy whiteboards are a focal point for children to write, draw and make any kind of marks.






Children's mathematical graphics

The Williams review highlighted the fact that many teachers and practitioners understand and value children's emergent writing but they seem unaware of children's own mathematical mark-making. The research of Carruthers and Worthington (2006) featured significantly in this review. Their term ‘children's mathematical graphics' is a phrase that is used in connection with the drawings, writings, tallies including standard and invented symbols that children choose to use to represent their mathematical thinking. Please note that this is not recording after a child has achieved a piece of practical work; for example, moving two sets of cubes together to do an addition and then drawing the cubes afterwards. Children's mathematical graphics means when children represent their thinking, sometimes on paper, at that time. In the following photograph, the children are writing down numbers and messages as they talk on the telephone.

Children on telephone

The Quality of thinking


In children's graphics it is the quality of thinking that is important. Adults can get distracted by looking at the merits of the finer details of the picture or the correctness of the writing or the exactness of the mathematics. It is the child's understanding of what they are meaning on paper that is important. Many children find the abstract symbols of mathematics difficult to understand. Children who make their own understanding through their own self-initiated invented drawings and invented symbols (children's mathematical graphics) develop towards an understanding of abstract symbols and include them in their mathematical graphics.


At first this may seem rather scribble like and lack detail. Kailen's interests are in enclosure and map making. Kailen explained to her key worker that the figure on the left was a little pirate who is hunting for treasure. She then said 'he is ten steps away from the big pirate'. She pointed to the middle of her drawing and said 'this is the big pirate' and she whispered, 'he has the treasure'. This has illuminated her graphic and we can see her thinking. This is not a pretty picture where the goal for the child may be to draw carefully and colour in but more importantly we can appreciate the graphic in terms of her thought processes. Lack of visual detail does not mean lack of thinking. Her thinking has been more important to her than the finer details of drawing a picture.

The dialogue with parents

Parents are important partners and the home provides a vehicle and often an important base for children to develop their thinking on paper. The conversations with parents about children's mark making illuminates to the teacher/practitioner what is happening at home and to the parent what is happening at the early years setting. Every child in our setting has a mark making folder which we share with parents. To heighten awareness of the children's marks, we host a mark making exhibition for parents and local settings. The children's graphics are carefully analysed and annotated. The parents are delighted and many remark how they had no idea that their children's drawings and paintings were so significant.

Some key points in children's mark making

• Mark making is children's own self -initiated marks in which they are exploring actions and forms of symbolic languages e.g. drawing, writing or mathematics.

• Children, if given the opportunity, make marks every day. It is sometimes difficult for adults to catch the meaning and context of these marks

• Scribbles are a significant development in children's mark-making and not haphazard actions. They are the important beginnings of all symbolic languages.

• Young children's marks are significant to them and they are learning and making meaning from the beginning.

• The types of marks they make can be multi-dimensional and multi-modal and linked to all representations.

• They are socially and culturally determined

• They are thinking in action.

• The pedagogy is based on understanding and valuing children's marks usually through observations and discussions with children.


Finally, there is much evidence that supports the premise that young children do and can make their own mathematical representations. The Williams Mathematics Review (2008) was quite clear in their recommendations that to secure effective pedagogy there needs to be; a culture with a significant focus on mathematical mark making, in line with early writing that encourages children to choose their own mathematical graphics to support their mathematical thinking and processes. The awareness of children's mathematical graphics needs to be raised.



Carruthers E. and Worthington M. Children's Mathematics: Making Marks, Making Meaning, London: Sage

Carruthers E. and Worthington M. (2005) Making Sense of mathematical Graphics: The Developmental of Understanding Abstract Symbolism, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal (EECERA)Vol 13 No1 (pp57-79)

Clay M. (1975) What did I write? London: Heinemann

DCSF, 2008 Independent Review of Mathematics Teaching in Early Years Settings and Primary Schools: Final Report, Sir Peter Williams

DCSF, 2008 Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage

Goodman, K. (1986) What's Whole in Whole Language? London:Scholastic

Hughes, M. (1986) Children and Number: Difficulties in Learning Mathematics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Malcholdi, C. (1998) Understanding Children's Drawings. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Newman, J. (1984) The Craft of Children's Writing. New York: Scholastic Book Services.

Elizabeth Carruthers is Headteacher of Redcliffe Children's Centre and Nursery School, Bristol.

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