ActivismDrawingFeminismVisual Art

Sunflowers, Suffragists, and Artistic Development in Children

To pay the bills, I work as support staff in an Early Childhood Education Centre. I’m lucky in that I very much enjoy this job, especially when I get to design art activities for the children.

Earlier this year, my preschool class planted some sunflowers outside in our garden. All spring the children watered the flowers as they grew, and learned about plants in the classroom. Shortly after our sunflowers bloomed one of them was pulled over by a particularly curious child trying to get a closer look and the stem broke from the strain. We brought the flower inside and placed it in a vase next to the art easel. A limited palette of green, yellow, and brown paint was provided. Here is what the children produced after a few days:

Ages 3-5

The wide range of visual expression fascinates me and I believe is indicative of just how much development children go through in such a short period of time (all the more reason to properly fund Early Childhood Education but that’s a whole other post). Some children, usually the younger ones, were not at all interested in the sunflower, but seemed to paint just for the sheer tactile enjoyment of moving the brush across the page. They were all about the process and not the product. The older children seemed more likely to attempt to represent the sunflower, often looking at it, and then painting a part of it, then repeating the process with little concern for placement. The oldest children seemed to be more concerned with placing the various elements of the flower in a recognizable sequence.

These are just my casual observations. I watched the children paint whenever I had the chance, and I wondered if anyone had ever looked at the relationship of childrens’ early development and the art they produced during that crucial time more methodically. Someone had.

Rhoda Kellogg, an early childhood educator, and psychologist, compiled around one million drawings of children ages two to eight and proceeded to classify them based on age and content. She developed a theory underlining the basic progression in stages the drawings seemed to follow as children aged: starting with scribbles, moving on to basic shapes, and then more complicated forms.


Her theory has since been expanded upon and contested by many, but it’s influence on the study of child development remains clear. The most compelling criticism of Kellogg’s stage theory I came across again and again, was that it was based solely on the final visual product of childrens’ art and offered little insight into the process behind creating it. Such insight often revealed a child’s creative intention that would have been completely missed if the act of creating had not been observed. From my own experience watching children create art, this rings true as many children seem to incorporate imaginary play into their art making process. For instance, I once witnessed one small child pretend his piece of chalk was a car, and “drove” it all over the chalkboard. Had I not seen his process, I might have completely missed the creative intention apparent in it. Any conclusions I would have reached about this child’s creative development based on his finished drawing alone would have been inaccurate. Despite the limitations of Kellogg’s theory, her work pioneered the study of artistic development in children, which owes a lot to her massive collection of drawings. Her entire collection is available for viewing online.

Kellogg was born in 1898 in Minneapolis. Before she began her research for artistic development in children, she had participated in the suffragist movement in Washington to gain women voting rights in 1916 and was even jailed for her involvement a few times. These early activist roots during her university years sparked a lifelong commitment to activism for the rights of women and children alike. Kellogg was an advocate for early childhood education beginning before age three for all children regardless of class. She was an activist for education reform, and pushed for better education for children and teachers alike. In her extensive writings, she stressed the importance of teaching children of either gender on equal footing, and wanted to see more male involvement in child rearing. She often criticized the government for providing childcare for women so that they could work during wartime, only to withdraw it once wartime ceased, and recognized the important role childcare played in allowing women to enter the workforce. Her activism and writings had a huge influence on education and feminism in America.

For all the progress made in the last century, if you listen to the words of activists trying to better childcare in Canada and the US today you’ll find that they sound a lot like what Kellogg was writing close to a hundred years ago. The current state of childcare in America leaves a lot to be desired. Canada, which has had socialized healthcare for ages, has yet to socialize childcare. We almost got a national childcare program before Harper was elected, but since the Conservatives came to power, things have only gotten worse. As a childcare worker and a feminist, I am often frustrated by the minimal funding, poor regulations, low wages for workers (disproportionately women), and expensive enrollment fees for parents. I see parents, teachers, and children struggle on a daily basis. Parents deserve better, teachers deserve better, and the children who painted those sunflowers deserve better.


Schirrmacher, Robert. Art and Creative Development for Young Children. New York: Delmar Publishers Inc, 1993. Print.

Adams, Katherine, and Micheal Keene. After the Vote was Won: the Later Acheivements of Fifteen Suffragists. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.








Julianne is an artist and illustrator with a passion for science, science fiction, and storytelling. She can often be found painting cephalopods at live music shows, trying to avoid mixing-up her brush water and beer but seldom succeeding. You can see her work at and follow her on Twitter @JulianneHarnish

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