Is colouring-in good or bad for children?


Colouring in gets a bad rap these days. Once very popular, these days they are accused of imposing unnecessary rules, stifling creativity and making children feel like failures. But is this really so?

Like everyone else, my opinion comes from a mix of childhood memories, adult observations, and reading other’s opinions. As a child, I was never keen on colouring-in books and they always ended up with some pages partly coloured. I found them boring rather than stifling, but wasn’t bothered by any rules and so didn’t feel like a failure. I did find the instructions interesting – descriptions of techniques like crosshatching, shading and blending – but never had the inclination to perfect them. But I knew others who did enjoy perfecting them and also enjoyed the “paint-by-numbers” kits.

I found the conversion of squiggles to drawings fascinating and much more inspiring than either a complete drawing to colour or a blank piece of paper.

Then along came television and Mr Squiggle (reminisce at which introduced the idea of being given a piece of paper with some lines or shapes already drawn with the challenge of incorporating them into a new drawing. I found the conversion of squiggles to drawings fascinating and much more inspiring than either a complete drawing to colour or a blank piece of paper.

Perhaps the detailed colouring books versus the blank paper define the two extremes of activity for many pursuits including art, writing, mathematics, science, cooking and general living.

At one end, you could painstakingly work to the rules or recipe provided, following the steps carefully. At the other end there are no rules and you have complete freedom to experiment. You see this in the grammar and spelling wars as well as drawing and art, and mathematics. Both extremes have a place. At times, it is necessary to follow the directions as a quick way of benefiting from existing knowledge until you feel proficient enough to start experimenting.

The positive side of colouring-in is that you can learn the rules and practice the techniques while following instructions, and the skills you build enables you execute your other original ideas. The downside appears if you treat the rules as inviolable rather than guidelines and only ever draw this way.

The positive side of the blank sheet / no rules experimenting is that it gives the freedom to produce new and interesting ideas.  The downside is that if you only ever draw this way you can miss the experience of evaluating situations and implementing changes.

Mr Squiggle is somewhere there in the middle. There is no right or best solution. Rather than complete freedom, there is a challenge mixed in.

Creative people learn to recognise and use both of these extreme mindsets to their advantage as they meet challenges, coming up and implementing new ideas. In The Creativity Crisis, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman say, “Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.”

So, the challenge we have with children is to provide the right balance of direction/instruction and encouragement to experiment.  You can use the templates on this site as starting points for children who like to use them, and allow them to experiment any way they like, encourage them to talk about what they are doing, why they choose each colour and method. You can print multiple copies and colour each differently and talk with them about the difference a change of colour or pattern makes.

The real question is not whether colouring in is good or bad, but what the individual child is getting out of any given activity.

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