This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Rockridge Press. All opinions are my own.
I remember my mentor in grad school talking about what she thought before having children and after having children. She was an early childhood professional, a lab school director, and a highly respected professor. She knew a lot about children. And one thing she knew for certain was that her children would not use coloring pages. Only the free expression of empty sheets of paper.
And then she had her children.
Including one daughter who loved coloring books.
She realized that like many things in life, this was not an either-or dilemma, but an and-how proposition. That along with reams and reams of blank paper, she could also have a few coloring books.
This is a perspective shift that is necessary in many areas of child development. Rather than seeing two concepts as diametrically opposed, we see that they may coexist (and) in a context where we are aware and intentional with their implementation (how).
Just as I’ve explained before with play and academics and arts and crafts we run into a hazard when we create a false dichotomy between two things that are simply different but not always conflicting.
It is not a situation of “either-or”, it is “and-how”.
Children need to engage in a variety of hands-on activities. By taking part in different tasks, different environments, and different experiences, different aspects of their whole-child development are driven.
Within that framework of whole-child development, children should be allowed plenty of time, space, and material for free, creative expression. They should be able to create collages out of an assortment of pom poms and paper scraps if they wish to, and unidentifiable forms out of playdough, straw segments, and feathers, should the inspiration strike.
Creativity and art in early childhood is not so much about the product, but about experience, exploration, imagination, expression, and joy.
The fact that children need blank spaces and open-ended opportunities to create does not mean that no place remains for coloring books. There is room for both blank sheets of paper AND coloring pages at the literal and figurative table. The important thing to consider is HOW we use them.
As with any activity, knowing our purpose and using it to guide how we implement an activity makes all the difference in that activity’s value and fit. Knowing your purpose helps you to guide with intention.
(Read more about this perspective in: Intention Deficit Disorder.)
So what are the Dos and Don’ts of coloring books? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you think intentionally about your HOW:
Allow young children coloring books as an enjoyable prewriting and fine motor exercise.
Expect young children to color in the lines or create picture-perfect projects.
Writing skills don’t suddenly emerge when children reach school age. And they certainly don’t begin forming when a child starts practicing handwriting. Beginning even in toddlerhood, around 18 months, children show interest in making marks on a page. What appears to many adults as random scribbling is the early developmental stages of writing. As they progress, their scribbling becomes more controlled and drawing begins to emerge. But those first scribbles across a page are no less valuable.
Young children need opportunities to make marks on paper and other surfaces, to scribble, and to experiment as they learn how to hold and manipulate writing utensils. Along with other fine motor tasks, such as playdough, blocks, lacing beads, sensory bins, cooking activities and literally anything else that requires them to hold, pinch, twist, grab, and squeeze, these activities give those tiny hand muscles a workout from many different angles, helping them to fully develop.
As toddlers progress from scribbling with their whole arm to coloring in a more controlled, isolated hand motion their pictures may still look like scribbles, but they are actually continuing on that developmental path.
(Quick Tip: inviting children to lay on their stomachs while coloring on the floor helps to stabilize the shoulder and isolate this fine motor movement.)
Use coloring books as an activity that is easily transportable and helpful during transitions.
Use coloring books as a task-driven assignment.
Coloring books are a great transitional activity because they’re simple to transport and easy to pull out, engage, and put away mid-project. They’re perfect for stashing in a day bag for a quiet, engaging activity on trips, during wait times at restaurants, or during those tricky in-between moments that come up.
Coloring books, however, shouldn’t be used as a sit-down-and-finish, adult-driven activity. Kids should be allowed to pick their own page from the selection in the book and determine for themselves whether or not they’re finished. When a coloring page becomes overly adult-driven or task-oriented assignment, it essentially becomes a worksheet rather than a self-selected activity.
Use coloring books as one of many writing surfaces a child may “own” and choose from to explore pre-writing skills in a meaningful and self-determined way through scribbling and mark-making.
Use coloring books as a replacement for creative activities.
In an “either-or” paradigm coloring books and creative art activities are seen as filling the same slot, and as such are in direct opposition. In reality, the “and-how” paradigm shows us that they can both be used to fill different purposes. While coloring books allow for some creative expression, fine motor and pre-writing skills are actually the developmental skills at the forefront. A child benefits from using them AND having open-ended creative activities (which build fine motor skills as well).
*Want to add more open-ended creativity to coloring books? Challenge your child to add on to the picture. For example, in a coloring book with basic shapes like this one, invite your child to add on to the shape to create something new. He/She might start with the simple square on the page and create a house, a rocket ship, or a robot.
Use coloring books as an opportunity to engage with your child, talking about the shapes, familiar letters, and objects.
Use coloring books as a replacement for engaging with those same shapes, letters, and objects in other real life, hands-on ways.
Similar to sharing a book at story time, engaging with the components of a coloring book supports language and literacy skills. Connecting those concepts in multiple scenarios and formats will solidify concepts in a more full-bodied way. When a child sees the letter M in her name, in her coloring book, on her cereal box, and on a storefront, the multiple fonts, formats, and uses give her a better understanding of what an M really is.
As I continue to work in the space of child development, I have noticed many “either-or” arguments debated. And while they are often rooted in best practice, and certainly best intentions, I worry that rigidity in thinking about childhood experiences can become detrimental.
I have seen promising activities quickly dismissed without even stopping to consider the “how”, which is truly the key for determining whether an activity may be a good fit for one child and perhaps not for another.
There is room for much more “and” in our practice as intentional parents and advocates for children. As long as we are clear and purposed in our “how”.
I’ve seen this recently in questions parents have asked about whether or not coloring books are good for kids. For me, this is another “and-how”. Along with other activities that foster creativity and fine motor skills, coloring books can be another “and” as long as “how” we use them is considered and intentional.
This is why, when Rockridge Press asked if I would review their new toddler coloring book, I agreed. Geared for young children, their coloring book uses bold lines and simple images to accommodate broad motion scribbling and coloring. The letters and shapes could easily be discussed and even traced over with a finger, but for young children, the emphasis isn’t on tracing these forms, simply on becoming familiar with them and their properties by having them in their environment in a variety of ways.
When the “how” is in line, this activity can become another “and”, along with the puzzles, playdough, collages, outings, and stories that build a young child’s experiences.
As we give our children a wide exposure to a variety of positive experiences, may we avoid the paralyzing “either-or” perspective and challenge ourselves to look for the “and-how”.