How to use sketchbooks in primary schools

Photo credits: Gomersal Primary School, used with permission.

In the National Curriculum (England), sketchbooks are mentioned only in Key Stage 2. The guidance states that children should ‘create sketchbooks to record their observations and use them to review and revisit ideas.’ This doesn’t mean they are exclusive to Key Stage 2 and many schools use them in all key stages.

Gomersal PS year 4 experimenting with shapes

The sketchbook is a very personal document. It records the thinking process which often leads to outcomes but the book itself becomes an art form. The word itself needs revisiting as ‘sketch’ implies drawing to many people, yet the sketchbook can include:

  • drawings or notes, 
  • key words, 
  • pieces of fabric or material, 
  • found objects, 
  • colours, 
  • photos, 
  • texts, 
  • rubbings, 
  • annotations, 
  • ephemera and other visual references.

 Some schools call them ‘visual diaries’ or ‘ideas book’, for example.

Drawing is usually the main content of these books and has purpose if used for perception, for invention, for communication and for action. The sketchbook is very important for this and it is also a place where children can record their ideas, their thinking, their evaluations, their experimentation, as well as their individuality. 

Don’t treat the sketchbook in the same way that you treat an exercise book. Marking and feedback should be in response to the creative activities of drawing, putting down ideas and carrying out design work rather than writing. Sketchbooks should be exciting to look at, touch and feel, and are central to good practice. As the work is predominantly visual, there are no right or wrong answers. In this subject, children do learn from mistakes and those should be valued as part of the working process. In fact, call it experimentation and ditch the word ‘mistake’!


Gomersal PS year 1 experimenting with colour and paint

In the Kapow Primary Art and design scheme of work, the upper Key Stage 2 lesson ‘Introduction to sketchbooks’ shows how a sketchbook is a must for all artists to record their ideas, inspiration and a place to practise and refine their skills. In all the other lessons, designing and sketching can all be recorded via the book, as seen in all Key Stage 1 lessons on the formal elements and the lesson on drawing: experimenting with media. In Key Stage 2, using the sketchbook would support lessons like drawing: still life as pupils could explore the shapes of objects and compositions and techniques in their books before starting a final outcome. Brief notes and annotations support these experiments and also prepare young people for the transition to secondary school where the use of sketchbooks is a key part of the curriculum.

And in the world of Art, craft and design, drawings are a starting point for making. Look at the sketches of Henry Moore (sculptor), Frank Gehry(architect), Zandra Rhodes (textiles/fashion), and Frida Kahlo’s (painter) diaries for inspiration.

Gomersal PS year 6 researching an artist

Sketchbooks develop critical thinking skills and are very important in tracking progress and the development of both thinking and ideas, and the mastery of techniques. I can often learn much more about a child’s progress in art through looking at their pages than I can with an isolated final outcome. I also suggest that teachers keep books, alongside their pupils’, perhaps where they store their examples or where they have modelled techniques. Children love to see their teacher using a book in the same way that they do.

So don’t treat them as exercise books. Let children create very personal books. You might want to point out a spelling mistake but don’t get the red pen out and if you want to leave comments, do it with a post-it note and not by invading their space with your writing. For the children, sketchbooks should be fun and enjoyable, free and individual, bursting with visual goodness and prompts, and literally a visual diary of ideas and experimentation!



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Susan Coles selfie
Written by:
Susan Coles

Susan is an educator, artist and an active advocate and well-known champion of art craft and design education. Her roles include: Secretary to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Art, Craft, Design Education, Past President, and now Honorary Fellow of the National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD), World Councillor (representing Europe) for the International Society of Education through Art (InSEA), and an Associate of the Big Draw. When Susan isn’t sharing her passion for the arts, she loves photography, making her own art, absorbing culture and travel.

Susan designed our free lesson on Clacton Pigeon Mural by Banksy as well as many others in our Art & Design subject.

Kapow Primary will be undergoing scheduled maintenance between 4pm 31st March and 8pm 31st March.