The Value of Form Drawing

Oct 25, 2022 | Curriculum, Elementary School, Grades, Grades 1-5

by Ashley Brickeen | Admissions Director, Early Childhood – Grade 8 and
by Catherine Dwyer | Class Teacher

Form drawing is a unique part of Waldorf Education. At Waldorf schools, students mainly practice form drawing from First grade through Fifth grade. As with most subjects, each year brings increasing complexity and new challenges to students’ spatial abilities, fine motor skills and focus, among other things. We can easily recognize how the act of form drawing lays a foundation for writing and drawing. More intriguing is that it also builds visual thinking, anticipatory thinking, spatial thinking, complex-solution thinking, and mathematical thinking.

So what is form drawing? Simply put, form drawing is the free-hand drawing of variations of the two universal forms – the straight line and the curved line, from which all forms are born – done through “repetitive drawing of symbols and shapes—both linear and lateral, zigzag or congruous knots. This freehand creation of patterns is more about process than product…” (“The Practical and Creative Art of Form Drawing” – Beverly Amico).

As a parent, the most important thing to know about form drawing is that last part: that form drawing is about the process, not the product. This process- how the drawing is done and not just how it looks in the end- is the “form” discussed in this Messenger article. Because it is this exercise of form drawing, like the exercise of any complex physical movement, that develops the brain and character of the student.

Often it is easier for us to see the value in that carefully controlled practice/form when it comes to teaching our child a physical skill, such as a rond de jambe in ballet. We patiently take our children to lessons where they practice a movement over and over until their body and brain are finally able to work fluidly together to create a perfect freestyle swim stroke or a beautifully executed hinge kick.

We forget that smaller movements, such as those of the hand, are also physical movements and that, as physical movements, they also require fluid communication between the brain, the eyes and the hand.

For form drawing, teachers often have the students walk the form, air-draw the form, or even draw the form with their foot on the floor, before they begin to draw the form on paper. During a form drawing exercise, teachers encourage students to draw continuously, without lifting and reorienting the pencil or paper. Students often want to move the paper around on their desk or start and stop a drawing to make it easier and to make it more “perfect.” They want to get the product- the final drawing- “right” as quickly and easily as possible.

This requirement to not move the paper or lift the crayon can seem arbitrary to parents, creating needless frustration for students- it makes getting the drawing “right” easier if you break the drawing into smaller parts or shift the paper around so that the brain has an easier time orienting itself to the image. So why would the teacher discourage the student from doing this?

This would be like a ballet teacher allowing your child to “perfect” their turns by simply walking around in a circle. Sure, they’ve turned 360 degrees, but that is not an actual ballet turn. A student walking their ballet turn hasn’t developed the muscle tone, coordination, balance and brain/body connections that are needed to execute an actual ballet turn. In short, they’ve been deprived of both the physical and mental growth that they would gain by carefully practicing the ballet turn over and over again until they can execute it as fluidly as possible. It may never be “perfect” but they will have gained those strong mental and physical abilities through the practice.

So what might it mean if your child wants to pick up or shift that piece of paper? What do they gain when a teacher does not allow them to “walk their ballet turn” by doing so? It could be a sign that they are struggling with crossing their midline. Crossing the midline is important because it shows that children (and adults) can use “both sides of their brain to coordinate smooth, controlled, complex movement.” (link) Children typically first start crossing their midline when they are 4-6 months old and master the skill when they are 8 or 9 years of age. For this reason, we expect that 1st and 2nd graders will struggle to keep their papers straight and thus have to cross their midline to draw the form. But as adults, we know they need this practice to support healthy brain development. Sometimes that practice, as with occupational therapy exercises, can be frustrating, but the process of doing the exercise- of sticking with the form in form drawing- is key.

When a child struggles to learn something challenging, reassure them that they will get better with practice. Remember that there are plenty of times during the day when they are allowed to start and stop a drawing or move their paper around their desk to avoid crossing that midline. But the form in form drawing is there for a purpose. It’s just another way that Waldorf Education supports the healthy brain development of the growing child.

Curious to know more about the role of form drawing in Waldorf curriculum? Keep reading!

As with everything in Waldorf Education, form drawing is multifunctional in its effects and has many educational benefits. As described by Angela Lord in her book Creative Form Drawing, “The true aim of education is not primarily to gather information for the sake of it, but to awaken genuine capacities of perception, judgment, creativity, and reliability in relation to life and living. Form drawing contributes in a meaningful way to healthy education.” She goes on to discuss that two important benefits of form drawing are integrating sensory experience and spatial awareness.

Form Drawing was brought to Waldorf schools by Rudolf Steiner, who worked with many groups of teachers in the early 1900’s. Steiner believed form drawing was an essential practice for education. “A kind of visual measuring through cognitive feeling is developed in the child by solving such form problems. By completing the other half of a form that the teacher has drawn on the board, the child can find his or her inner balance and a sense of natural harmony.

Rudolf Steiner said in the fourth chapter of The Kingdom of Childhood: ‘In this way [through form drawing] one educates the child toward a real feeling for form, toward a feeling for harmony, for symmetry, and toward a feeling of relationships. In this way one can guide the child into those harmonies which also exist in the world around us.’ And further on he says: ‘…the child will develop on the one hand more thoughtfulness in his observations and on the other hand more intuition in his thinking.’ One could say a kind of moral imagination is introduced through such exercises that insist on the virtue of veracity and visual truth.” (“Language of the Line: a Reinvented Art-form of the Waldorf Schools” – Van James)

Van James goes on to say, “Metamorphosis exercises [in form drawing] encourage a mobility of thinking when one follows a form through a process of development that can include inside-out and upside-down reversals. This is a very helpful preparation for the organic sciences (such as Class 5 botany) and bears a direct relationship to projective geometry. Again, flexibility in thinking is encouraged entirely through the pictorial.”

Form drawing in all its aspects is an amazing process to nurture and encourage a child’s full growth. The students find it fun to do and enjoy using the forms they learn in their own lesson work and throughout their day, such as in handwork or eurythmy.

Form drawing is another unique aspect of Waldorf education that enlivens a child’s expansion into their full potential.