Early childhood: observational drawing as a science tool

If you stopped by the Liberty Science Center on October 27, you could have visited MSS teachers Emily Sytsma (Lead Preschool Teacher) and Clara Buckley (Lead Preschool Teacher, Upper School Art). They participated in a poster session at the New Jersey Association of Independent School (NJAIS) conference. Their presentation was called Drawing on Science: Observational Drawing as a Science Tool in the Early Childhood Classroom.

Much of the information on this blog comes from their work.

MSS teachers Emily Sytsma and Clara Buckley at the NJAIS conference at Liberty Science Center

MSS teachers Emily Sytsma and Clara Buckley at the NJAIS conference at Liberty Science Center

So, for those of you who couldn’t be there, why do we use observational drawing as a science tool?

Observational drawing helps students observe and reflect upon what they see.  It provides teachers with useful information. Shows us features that students notice.  Brings up topics for discussion.  Why does the turtle have a point there by his mouth? The branch in the vase is big in the water, but little where the water stops.

Research bears out further benefits (see end of blog for references):

  • Observational drawing grounds young children, whose thoughts are often full of imagination and fantasy, in reality  (Fox, 2010)
  • Drawing takes observation beyond simple sensory perception and allows children to organize knowledge and understanding (Fox, 2010)
  • Learning to draw with accuracy helps children to filter speculations and false theories out from what was actually observed in the subject or process (Fox & Lee, 2013)
  • Children develop new theories as they draw and observe (Ainsworth, Prain, & Tytler, 2011)
  • Children retain more of what they learn in an observation when they draw vs. when they do not (Fox & Lee, 2013)
  • Teachers may assess what children have learned by what they are paying attention to in their drawings

low res poster1

At Mustard Seed School, young children regularly draw

  • ladybug.jpgseeds, leaves, flowers
  • plants that the children help to grow
  • gourds
  • insects: ladybugs, bees
  • feathers, bird nests
  • worms
  • class pets: fish, turtle
  • leaves
  • flowers
  • plant root systems
  • inside simple machines
  • bicycles
  • vehicles
  • architectural structures
  • birds
  • bones, eyes, bodies
  • playground structures

We want children to be active observers of the world around them. To ask questions. Share observations that will guide their research and lead them to greater knowledge.  Observational drawing is just one of many entry points that we use as we teach science and math.

Looking for more information or ideas about how to guide young students in observational drawing?

I highly recommend Drawing on Science , a handout by Ms. Sytsma and Ms. Buckley. If you are at school, stop by the preschool to see the lovely posters that Ms. Sytsma designed for the conference.


Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to Learn in Science. Science, 333 (6046). Retrieved from http://cognitrn.psych.indiana.edu/rgoldsto/courses/cogscilearning/

Fox, J. (2010). The Role of Drawing in Kindergarteners’ Science Observations. International Art in Early Childhood Research Journal, 2(1). Retrieved from: http://artinearlychildhood.org/artec/images/

Fox, J. & Lee, J. (2013). When Children Draw vs When Children Don’t: Exploring the Effects of Observational Drawing in Science. Creative Education, 4. doi: 10.4236/ce.2013.47A1002

Lesson Planning in the Context of the Project Approach: Helping Children Sketch and Draw from Observation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://illinoispip.org/lesson-planning/drawing.html

Shanna Pargellis

SHANNA PARGELLIS, Founder; Early Childhood Director

Ms. Pargellis is one of the founders of Mustard Seed School and has been an integral part of the school since its inception in 1979.