In a world of helicopter parenting, in which parents are “over-focused on their children,” one of the more useful ways parents hover over their children is by making sure their development goes smoothly. Part of this includes obsessing over whether their brains and intelligence are maturing at the right pace. Although there are plenty of ways to determine how intelligent a child will be, researchers from King's College London have found that a simple drawing test can predict future intelligence.

“Drawing is an ancient behavior, dating back beyond 15,000 years ago,” said Dr. Rosalind Arden, from the university’s Medical Research Council Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, in a press release. “Through drawing, we are attempting to show someone else what’s in our mind. This capacity to reproduce figures is a uniquely human ability and a sign of cognitive ability, in a similar way to writing, which transformed the human species’ ability to store information, and build a civilization.”

Their “Draw-a-Child” test literally asked kids to draw a child. They graded the tests on a scale of 0 to 12 depending on how detailed the children’s drawings were. If they included facial components like eyes and noses, or other body parts like hair, arms, and legs, they were given additional points. In addition to the drawing test, the children, who were 4 years old, were also given verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests.

Ten years later, when the kids were 14, the researchers conducted a new set of verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests. They found that the scores children earned on their drawing tests could predict intelligence at age 14, although the correlation was moderate. “The Draw-a-Child test was devised in the 1920s to assess children’s intelligence, so the fact that the test correlated with intelligence at age 4 was expected,” Arden said. “What surprised us was that it correlated with intelligence a decade later.”

She added that parents shouldn’t be worried if their child is bad at drawing because other factors can contribute to a child’s intelligence, both genetic and environmental. The study involved over 7,700 twin pairs, and the researchers found that twins tended to have similar drawings to each other when compared to other twins — suggesting that there was a possible genetic link. “This does not mean that there is a drawing gene,” Arden said. “A child’s ability to draw stems from many other abilities, such as observing, holding a pencil, etc. We are a long way off understanding how genes influence all these different types of behavior.”

Although exposing a child to many things when they’re young can help boost their intelligence, it only works to an extent. The key to helping a child learn more may actually be in doing the opposite, by letting their curiosity and willingness to explore take them on a journey. Two studies from 2011 showed that giving kids instructions on how to use certain objects caused them to only use the objects as told, eliminating any toying around they might have done. But it’s that toying around that spurs creativity, making them smarter.

Source: Arden R. Genes influence young children's human figure drawings, and their association with intelligence a decade later. Psychological Science. 2014.