Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A1, 11-14
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
When Children Draw vs When Children Don’t: Exploring the
Effects of Observational Drawing in Science
Jill E. Fox1, Joohi Lee2
1University of Houston, Victoria, Victoria, USA
2University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, USA
Received May 3rd, 2013; revised June 4th, 2013; accepted June 12th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Jill E. Fox, Joohi Lee. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The purpose of this study was to investigate how kindergarten children’s observational drawings impact
their information retention. This research was conducted in an urban school in a large metropolitan area in
the southwestern United States. Forty-two kindergarten children participated in this study; approximately
97% of them qualified for free and/or reduced lunch. For this study, children’s retention of factual infor-
mation was compared using a paired t-test of when they drew and when they didn’t. Children scored
higher on all 7 items—descriptions of observation, location, action, color, size, shape, and sound—when
they drew than when they didn’t. Findings were statistically significant for descriptions of observation (t
= 3.08, p = .00) and location (t = 2.36, p = .02).
Keywords: Observation; Observational Drawing; Scientific Drawing
Observation is a fundamental skill for successful scientific
inquiry (National Research Council, 1996). It has been empha-
sized that young children should practice observation skills at
an early age (NRC, 1996) and they need to learn how to ob-
serve in a systematic manner. Several educators and researchers
have recommended that teachers of young children employ
various strategies to record children’s observations including
drawing (Samarapungavan, Patrick, & Mantzicopoulous, 2011;
Quigley, Pongsanon, & Akerson, 2010; Bosse, Jacobs, & An-
derson, 2009). However, there has been limited research on
how drawing activities affect young children’s observational
experiences. This study is an exploratory study aiming to pre-
sent how drawing impacts children’s observation skills during
scientific inquiry.
Theoretical Framework
Observation as a Fundamental Inquiry Skill
“Science as Inquiry” is the very first of the six content stan-
dards of the National Science Education (NSE). NRC (1996)
has proposed that children in K through grades 12 should de-
velop the abilities to do scientific inquiry and understand scien-
tific inquiry as the major goal of science education. Inquiry is
defined as “a very careful and systematic method of exploring
the unknown so that discoveries are made” (Abruscato, 2004: p.
46). To be able to successfully engage in inquiry, young chil-
dren should obtain basic inquiry process skills which include
observation as a key component.
The importance of observation has been nationally and in-
ternationally highlighted in existing literatures as well as na-
tional and state standards. Internationally, observation is a
component of early childhood and preschool curricula in
Greece (Kallery, Psillos, & Tselfes, 2009) and Australia (Howitt,
Lewis, & Upson, 2011), among other countries. As indicated
above, in America, observation is considered to be one of criti-
cal scientific inquiry skills that children should begin to de-
velop in early education (National Committee on Standards for
Science Education, 1996). Several American states have identi-
fied observation as a basic scientific skill to be introduced in
the kindergarten science curriculum (California Department of
Education, 1998; Connecticut State Department of Education,
2004; Texas Education Agency, 1998; Virginia Department of
Education, 2009) and it has been integrated throughout state
standards to make it mandatory. Teachers of young children
have been encouraged and required to provide students obser-
vational practices throughout the curriculum especially in sci-
ence learning. However, there has been deficiency of research
on how to promote children’s observational skills in early
childhood. This study is to provide evidence based empirical
data to teachers of young children how to promote observation
skills in a structured manner by integrating drawing activities.
Drawings a s O bs ervational Records
Professional organizations such as NRC (1996) and National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 2001) emphasize
encouraging children to use various methods to organize, re-
cord, and communicate their thoughts, ideas, and observations.
According to Howes (2007), observational practice has little
meaning for young children without recording what they ob-
serve. Many times, children at upper elementary education and
middle/high school levels record their observations in print or
in writing, frequently in a science journal (Dove, Everett, &
Preece, 1999). However, young children with limited profi-
ciency in formal reading and writing often experience frustra-
tion trying to write in a journal. To sensitively respond to the
needs of young children, additional forms of representation
should be encouraged for recording their observations. For
example, an audio recording of the child’s description of the
observation, a photograph, or a drawing would all provide do-
cumentation of the experience. In this study, researchers util-
ized children’s drawings, the most frequently used representa-
tion tool in early childhood. Drawing is one of concrete and
effective ways for young children attempting to record their
observations (Kepler, 1998; Brooks, 2003).
Some educators might debate the use of drawings as a re-
cording tool of science observations since many children use
drawings to represent their thoughts and emotions instead of
factual observations. Though young children most often engage
in drawing as a creative activity or as a tool to express their
feelings/ideas, Kaatz (2008) claims that even at a young age,
children are able to understand the differences between scien-
tific and creative drawing. Based on her research, children are
easily able to distinguish scientific drawings from creative and
imaginative drawings.
When children are engaged in the drawing process to repre-
sent their observations, their observational and analytical skills
(Jolley, 2010), including spatial visualizations, orientations and
relation (Brooks, 2009), increase. In addition, children’s ability
to describe factual information based on their scientific obser-
vation increases (Fox, 2010). In the current study, a quasi-ex-
perimental model was applied to quantitatively investigate how
effective kindergarten children’s observational drawings were
as they attempted to recall and to describe the information they
Research Set ti n g and Partici p ants
This research was conducted in an urban school in a large
metropolitan area in the southwestern United States. Approxi-
mately 97% of the children attending this school qualify for
free and/or reduced-cost lunch. Participants in this study were
42 children enrolled in 8 different kindergarten classes at the
school (27 boys and 15 girls). All of the children were attending
kindergarten for the first time and had turned five years of age
on or before October 1 of the current school year. Regarding
ethnicity, 18 children identified as African-American, 21 as
Latino, one as Asian-American, and two as Anglo.
Data Collection and Analysis
Each child participating in this study conducted two observa-
tions of live animals. The children were randomly divided into
a drawing and a non-drawing group; children from each ability
group were evenly distributed across the drawing and non-
drawing groups. Interviews were conducted by the primary
researcher, an early childhood professor and former kindergar-
ten teacher, who had been volunteering in the kindergarten
classrooms weekly for seven months. Interview questions (see
Appendix) were developed collaboratively by the researchers
and the classroom teachers and were based on the role of ob-
servation in the science curriculum. For their first observation,
individual children were asked to join the researcher at a table
and be a scientist, making “a careful observation” of two zebra
finches in a bird cage. When the children indicated that they
had finished observing, each child in the non-drawing group
was asked a series of questions (Appendix) about what he or
she had seen, while each child in the drawing group was given
a sheet of paper and a set of markers and asked to draw what he
or she had seen. When the child had completed his/her drawing,
the same series of questions was asked by the researcher. For
both groups of children, the birds remained in full view on the
table so that the children could look again as needed. During
the following week, the same process was repeated with a re-
versal of the drawing and non-drawing groups and a different
animal for the children to observe (a box turtle in a terrarium).
An audio recording was made of each child’s responses to
the series of interview questions. The recordings were tran-
scribed each day after the interviews were concluded. The re-
searchers reviewed the transcripts daily and began to identify
patterns and categories in the children’s responses. The tran-
scripts were also reviewed by one of the classroom teachers and
a second early childhood professor to confirm the patterns and
categories identified by the researcher.
In reviewing the interview transcripts, each answer was
quantified using a three-point scale: 0 for an inaccurate or fan-
tasy answer irrelevant to the actual answer, .5 for a partially
accurate answer, and 1 for an accurate answer. Answers were
graded on seven major questions about descriptions of observa-
tion, location, action, color, size, shape, and sound. To compare
the mean score differences on each item between when children
drew and when children didn’t draw, a paired-t test was calcu-
Results showed that children scored higher on all of the
categories (description of observation, location, action, color,
size, shape, and sound) when they drew their observations. As
Table 1 shows, children scored higher on all items (i.e., de-
scription of observation, location, action, color, size, shape, and
sound) when they drew than when they did not. Children in
both groups showed the highest scores on describing their ob-
servation (See Tables 1 and 2) and lowest on the item associ-
ated with description of size when they did not draw (M = .50,
SD = .30) and when they drew (M = .54, SD = .28).
Table 2 presents mean differences of children’s information
retention scores between when they drew and when they did not.
Table 1.
Descriptive statistics of non-drawing vs drawing.
M (SD)
Items Non-drawing Drawing
Description of observation .81 (.34) .95 (.20)
Description of location .74 (.36) .86 (.30)
Description of action .78 (.36) .86 (.30)
Description of color .87 (.31) .93 (.22)
Description of size .50 (.30) .54 (.28)
Description of shape .78 (.39) .87 (.32)
Description of sound .78 (.37) .86 (.31)
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Children earned highest gains on description of observation (M
Diff = .13) and the second highest score differences were found
in the category of description of location (M Diff = .11). The
lowest score difference was found on description of size (M
Diff = .03).
As Table 3 presents, a paired t-test showed that there were
statistically significant mean differences found on “description
of observation (t = 3.08, p = .00),” and “description of location
(t = 2.36, p = .02)” between when children drew their observa-
tion and when they didn’t. The rest of 5 items (e.g., descriptions
of action, color, size, shape, and sound) were not found to be
statistically significant.
The major findings of this study are: 1) the difference in
children’s scores on description of observation was found to be
statistically significant between when they drew and when they
didn’t, favoring children in a drawing group; and 2) the differ-
ence in children’s scores on description of location was found
Table 2.
Mean difference and standard error on each item.
Items M Diff SD Error
Pair 1 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of
observation .13 .04
Pair 2 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of location .11 .04
Pair 3 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of action .07 .06
Pair 4 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of color .05 .04
Pair 5 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of size .03 .05
Pair 6 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of shape .08 .06
Pair 7 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of sound .07 .04
Note: M Diff = Mean Difference.
Table 3.
A paired t-test on non-drawings vs drawings.
Items t p
Pair 1 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of
observation 3.08 .00**
Pair 2 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of
location 2.36 .02*
Pair 3 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of action 1.27 .20
Pair 4 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of color 1.18 .24
Pair 5 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of size .70 .48
Pair 6 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of shape 1.41 .16
Pair 7 (non-drawing
vs drawing) Description of sound 1.59 .11
*Significant at .05 level; **Significant at .001 level.
to be statistically significant between when they drew and when
they didn’t, again favoring children in a drawing group. In fact,
children scored higher on all of seven items (descriptions of
observation, location, action, color, size, shape, and sound)
when they drew compared to when they didn’t draw during a
science observation. Although the first two items (description
of observation and location) were found to be statistically sig-
nificant, scientific observational drawings also helped children
retain factual information associated with action, color, size,
shape, and sound.
Drawing as an activity in the kindergarten curriculum is most
often associated with creativity. Edwards, Gandini, and Forman
(1998) identify drawing as one of the languages children use for
communication. Kindergarten teachers encourage children to
use their imaginations when they draw and to communicate
thoughts, impressions, and feelings in their artwork. Just as
children learn to write for different purposes, however, they can
also learn to draw to communicate both the literal and the
imaginary (Kaatz, 2008). Children’s emergent understanding of
science may benefit from this distinction.
Divergent thinking and creativity are typically encouraged in
the kindergarten classroom and curriculum while scientific
observation is dependent on literal thinking and logical reason-
ing. Accurate observations are those that carefully distinguish
what was actually observed from ideas and speculations about
the subject and the process (American Association for the Ad-
vancement of Science, 1997).
In this study, drawing objects that were seen in the observa-
tion appears to have supported the children’s retention of in-
formation about what was actually there while restricting
speculation or interpretation about the animals and their habi-
tats. Nigel, for example, having drawn his observation of the
box turtle, answered the question about its size by saying, “It
looks like ··· small.” His answer to the same question after not
drawing his observation of the birds lacked this focus: “Uh, this
big. And they’re birds ··· you’re their mom ··· and this white
thing right there. What is that?” The children who drew econo-
mized during their interviews in ways that the majority of the
children could not when they did not draw. Drawing focused
the children’s attention on what was there and they were able to
omit hypothetical questions and irrelevant interjections. As
Kaatz (2008) indicated, children are able to differentiate be-
tween imaginative and factual drawings. When using drawing
as a record of observations, it is recommended that teachers
remind children that they are to draw their observations as a
scientist and that their drawings should be factual.
One of the limitations of this study is associated with the
question on “size” (how big is it?) the researchers used in this
study. Without a referent it is challenging for children to re-
spond to the question on size. A couple of children answered
using standard measurement units (e.g., 5 feet, 3 inches) which
are out of range. For example, the size of a fish was refereed to
5 feet which was about 2.5 inches. This might be the reason that
children scored lowest on “size” in both groups (drawing and
non-drawing). Thus, it is recommended for future researchers to
consider utilizing a referent for comparison purpose to deter-
mine the size of objects.
It is also recommended that future research on this topic be
qualitative. This study is intended to rationalize the thoughts
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 13
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
behind children’s responses. Therefore, it is necessary to further
analyze children’s responses by asking “why” questions to
obtain information on the rationales behind their responses.
Although additional study is needed to determine exactly
why drawing helps to keep children focused during their ob-
servations, our findings suggest that drawing does play an im-
portant role in helping children to retain more factual informa-
tion when they utilize it during science observations. Profes-
sional scientists in all fields draw upon disciplinary knowledge
and understanding of the environment to learn from their ob-
servations, and these must be learnt and practiced like any other
working skill (Alden, 2009). Focused observations in which
children use drawing to record what they see provide the foun-
dation upon which the skills and abilities needed for scientific
inquiry are built.
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Interview Question s
Tell me what you see.
Where is it in the terrarium? [fish bowl?]
What is it doing?
What color is it?
How big it is?
What shape is it?
Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about what you
are seeing?