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Developing the use of Sketchbooks in Primary Schools

Sketchbooks - What is the Point?

Sketchbooks are a space where children can develop their ideas and artistic skills in an exploratory way. They enable children to try out ideas, techniques and reflect critically on their work.

Here are some key benefits of using sketchbooks in the primary classroom:

- They enable children to try out techniques and processes in a safe space. This helps to develop their skills.

- They develop children's critical thinking skills.

- They support children's writing skills through the reflective annotations and evaluative jottings they make.

- They are really useful for children to refer to in Art lessons. For example, a mark making lesson in Year 3 could be a really useful source of ideas later on in the school.

- They provide a space for children to both practise and master techniques.

- They encourage children's creativity.

- They are a fantastic source of evidence for teachers to be able to measure progress in Art (and to show Ofsted!) They are a great way to document the artistic journey children go on through primary school.

- Practising artists use sketchbooks as an important part of the art making process - therefore it is beneficial for children to do so also.

Photo of watercolour paints and sketchbook ideas

What Makes a Good Sketchbook?

The first thing to say is that sketchbooks should look like no other book children work in at school. They should be much more personal to the child and be a creative space where children feel free to explore their thinking and make mistakes!

So, what might you see when looking through an example of a good sketchbook?

- Page titles: Rather than children writing out learning objectives, children should develop a title for the lesson. In the lower years, this might be provided by the teacher but in later years this might be something children decide themselves. In any case, children should be given creative freedom to write their title how they want, for example, they write it down the side of their page or use swirly writing at the top or in the centre of the page. Training children to do this might take some time but it is all part of helping children see this as 'their own' book and encouraging them to be creative.

- Practising skills and techniques: A sketchbook should not be a book of perfect drawings children have made. Instead, it is a space where children might, for example, try out different shading techniques. They could practice mixing water colour paints or experiment with blending chalks in different ways. They might try out different ways of applying ink to a printing block and record this in their sketchbook... it is a space of exploration and experimentation to enable children to develop their skills.

- Annotations: Children should be encouraged to annotate their work in their sketchbooks. They might write about what went well or what they like. Perhaps they could write about what didn't work well or ideas for how to improve next time. Sets of questions could be provided by the teacher to encourage this but eventually, children should be naturally recording their thought process as they work in their sketchbook.

- Choice: It is important that children are given an element of choice as it allows them to express themselves how they want to. Therefore, children should be encouraged to lay out their page how they want. Opportunities for children to make significant, independent choices through their artistic journey should be obvious. Not all children's experimentations or annotations will look the same. Sketchbooks should be a powerful way to facilitate children's independent decision-making.  

A child using a sketchbook outside

Sketchbooks - Top Tips

- Don't formally mark a sketchbook in the way you might mark an English or Maths book. Instead, write your feedback on sticky notes so that the marking doesn't go on the artwork or experimentation work.

- Children should ideally not start a new sketchbook every year. Instead, the sketchbook they start in Year 3 (unless your school decides to use sketchbooks in KS1) should move up with them throughout their time at primary school. The benefits include children being able to refer back to work and experimentation they have done in previous years and the ability to show the progression children have made in their artistic skills over the years.

- Children may find the freedom they are given with laying out their page and annotating the process very difficult to start with. If they have to lay out their work in the other subjects in a very prescriptive way, this is of course understandable. Why not produce a model page to show children how they might lay out their work or, have your own sketchbook, that you work in at the same time as the children. Looking at examples of how other children in the class decided to lay out their work will also be useful in moving your children toward using their sketchbooks in a creative, personal way.

- Encourage children not to rub out any work they do or tear out pages. Children need to understand that this book shows the whole process and making mistakes is a big and important part of this. Children should instead review their work through annotations and make visual corrections. They might, for example, develop their observational drawing of an apple over a whole page - trying out new techniques or starting over. It is all part of the process and that is what a sketchbook should be like!

- Some schools decide to name the book a 'visual diary' or an 'ideas book' to better describe what the book is for. Remember, it should not just be a book full of 'sketches'!


Using a sketchbook to experiment with colour and stroke

Sketchbooks - What Does the National Curriculum Say?

The National Curriculum for Art KS2 states that children should 'create sketchbooks to record their observations and use them to review and revisit ideas. '

However, many schools opt for children to also have sketchbooks in KS1.

PLANNING PACK: LS Lowry KS2 - The Complete Series

The children use their sketchbooks to record their ideas and evaluate the techniques they learn in each lesson before creating their own, collaborative Lowry-style art.

PLANNING PACK: Graffiti Art KS2 - Street Art - The Complete Series

Through the five included lessons, children will build up a collection of sketches and improve their designs for pieces, and have opportunities to draw, paint, cut and stencil during every lesson.

PLANNING PACK: Yayoi Kusama - The Complete Series

Have your class explore different ways that they can create dots using a variety of materials which they can record in their sketchbook to use in future artwork.

PLANNING PACK: People in Action - The Complete Series

Spring into action with this set of 6 ready-to-teach Art 'People in Action' lesson plans for Year 5 and 6.