In Defense of Coloring

foodforthoughtI write to defend the time-honored children’s activity of coloring.

Some parents reading this may be unaware that coloring needs defending, but believe me when I say that among a certain set of early childhood educators, coloring has gotten a pretty bad rap. The idea is that children learn best through open-ended materials and activities (which is absolutely true). If your toys are Ninja Turtles and the Barbie Dream House, they will always be Ninja Turtles and the Barbie Dream House; but if you’ve got yourself a good set of wooden blocks you can make them into a city or a car or a zoo or robot or any number of things, and your brain gets smarter by doing that. Instead of, say, representational food in the dramatic play area, try a bowl full of smooth rocks, and see how creatively the kids use them. Kids should have experiences that allow them to be creative and make their own decisions.

I strongly believe in the power and importance of open-ended play experiences. I’ve met way too many children who only know how to play if there’s a “script” from a movie or TV show they’ve seen, and are at a loss when asked to just make something up, and I think that’s awful. I am firmly against “cookie cutter” art activities where everyone is supposed to make one that looks like the teacher’s example and creativity is (perhaps inadvertently) stifled. I even believe it’s a bad idea, generally speaking, for an adult to create art alongside a child—almost always the adult’s technical skills are better, and I’ve seen a lot of children get discouraged by the implicit comparison. (Though I’ve seen the opposite happen too, occasionally.)

For a lot of teachers and schools, coloring gets lumped in with other closed-ended art activities, and I understand why. Coloring in a picture of a puppy isn’t nearly the same creative effort as deciding yourself that a puppy is what you want to draw, choosing how the puppy should looking, and figuring out how to make your markers get that puppy on the page. There’s simply not as much thinking going on there.

rg1And yet… does that mean there’s NO thinking going on? Don’t you remember coloring when you were a kid? Personally, I found it incredibly gratifying. Drawing could be so frustrating sometimes, when things didn’t come out the way they were in my head; it was so satisfying to have it come out perfect once in a while. And when I didn’t have to worry about, say, getting the shape of the puppy’s body right, I could concentrate  on other techniques, like shading and blending. And there were creative choices too—giving the puppy leopard spots or racing stripes or dragonfly wings. I feel like there was quite a lot I got out of coloring activities.

There’s also not, I think, a bright line between coloring and other art activities. I’ve had tremendous success taking photos of children, xeroxing their faces, and having them color their own pictures. I’ve had great experiences cutting the easel paper into shapes—say, the shape of a fish, if we’re doing underwater-related curriculum—and watching the children get inspired to paint in new ways. I think there’s a lot to be said for cutting pictures out of magazines and decorating them with markers or collage materials. I think all of those are somewhere on a spectrum between entirely open-ended art and coloring, and in my experience children are often tremendously creative in these kinds of activities.

I’m reminded of my (very limited) experience writing poems. If you tell me write a poem, I stare at a blank page and get nothing done. If you tell me to write a haiku, or a limerick, or a sonnet—poetry forms with strict construction rules—I can bang one out in no time. Not that it’ll be a work of fine art, but at least I can create SOMETHING of my own. I think many artists will tell you that having some rules or boundaries or constraints will boost your creativity. Creating in a vacuum is hard, and that’s what drawing on a blank sheet of paper can be. Getting a little structure—whether that’s a bucket of stickers or rubber stamps, or directions on how to use a certain kind of brush or pastel, or a shape to color in—can give you a direction to go.

I’m not recommending all coloring all the time, of course. Children need to experience a wide variety of ways to express their creativity—as wide a variety as possible. If I walk in a classroom and all the art on the walls is stuff children have colored in, I know something is wrong. But a few coloring activities? Some xeroxed pages available alongside the other art supplies? I think that’s just fine.

General good practices for responding to children’s artwork still apply. It’s good to neutrally note what you see (“Boy, you used a lot of green and blue in this one”) and ask open-ended questions (“Tell me about what you made”). Making value judgments (“What a pretty picture!”) and assuming you know the child’s intentions (“I like the birds you drew up at the top!”) can have disastrous consequences (“They’re not birds, they’re flying saucers, and they didn’t come out how I wanted them, and that’s all the clearer because you said it was pretty and it’s not supposed to be pretty, it’s supposed to be scary! I guess I’m no good at drawing.”). And of course, don’t criticize. “Cat’s aren’t supposed to be blue!” Well, obviously THIS cat is blue, so what’s your problem?

Given all that, though, I think coloring doesn’t deserve its bad reputation, and it can be part of a balanced breakfast. Er, art curriculum.

* * *

I’m sure teachers and parents alike have thoughts about coloring and art. I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

Teacher Tom, as per usual, has some excellent thoughts on open-ended art activities with children, and how teachers can make that kind of thing work. I highly recommend reading this one and this one.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Coloring

  1. Geneva February 6, 2013 at 6:46 pm Reply

    I have met at least two adults (separately) who confessed to still coloring in coloring books when they were upset. They found it quieting, like a meditation, the way some people use knitting. I’m sure that would apply to children, too.

    • Elizabeth McD February 7, 2013 at 5:17 am Reply

      I got a human anatomy coloring book as a “white elephant” gift last year. It’s designed to help med students memorize anatomy… I just find it very calming, as you say.

  2. Ann February 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm Reply

    Hi, I have 2 boys…. and I agree open ended things are awesome. blocks and paint and legos rule my house. We also love coloring (inside or outside the lines). I do disagree that the barbie dream house can only be that. We have a dragon castle ( a castle that has various dragons built into it) that frequently becomes the roof of a wrestling cage or the trap door into a hideout. I have no evidene to back this up other than my experience as a mom, but I think an enviroment and caregivers that allow “freerange” use of materials is important. My boys know they are allowed to pretend anything that doesn’t involve shooting or hurting real people. space aliens are another story..

    Oh, and I can’t draw to save my life, so I straight up loved coloring while I dreaded art class so much I wanted to throw up.

  3. […] people on them (and don’t start with me about the evils of coloring books and xeroxing—I’m way ahead of you) with pre-cut-out clothes-shaped bits of paper that the kids could glue on however they wanted. For […]

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