Abstract In this article I present some ideas, based on qualitative research into young children's drawing, related to the developing discourse on young children's thinking and meaning making. I question the relationship between perception and conception and the nature of representation, challenging traditional ideas around stage theory and shifting the focus from the drawings themselves to the process of drawing, and thus to the children's own purposes. I analyse examples of my observations (made in naturalistic settings within a nursery classroom) to reveal the range of representational purposes and meaning in children's drawing activity. My analysis shows that, rather than being developmentally determined, the way children configure their drawings is purposeful; children can recognise the power of drawing to represent, and that they themselves can be in control of this. I explore aspects of the process, including transformation and talk to show the importance of understanding drawing in its specific contexts. I show how children's drawing activity is illuminated by the way in which it occurs and the other activities linked to it, presenting drawing as part of children's broader, intentional, meaning-making activity. As an aspect of the interactive, communicative practices through which children's thinking develops, representation is a constructive, self-directed, intentional process of thinking in action, through which children bring shape and order to their experience, rather than a developing ability to make visual reference to objects in the world. I suggest that in playing with the process, children are actively defining reality rather than passively reflecting a given reality.