Coloring books: mindful or mindless?

The adult coloring book craze has been in full swing for several years now. The beautifully detailed books by Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford launched the trend in 2013, and, for a period last year, her “Secret Garden” and a follow-up, “Enchanted Forest” were Amazon’s top two best-selling books among all categories. The New Yorker places this renewed interest in a favorite childhood activity within the larger context of adults craving simpler childhood experiences; this so-called ‘Peter Pan market’ includes young adult books and summer camp experiences for adults (!).

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From: Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, via Glamour

Much has also been made of the stress-reducing and digital-detoxifying powers of coloring and, indeed, the publishing industry boom apparently began in France in 2012 when publishers began marketing coloring books as ‘Art-therapie’, ‘Coloriages Anti-Stress’, and the like. Going further back, Carl Jung prescribed mandala coloring to his patients to relax and get in touch with their inner selves. This ‘meditative’ aspect of coloring fits in well with the current interest in mindfulness and slow living.

So……chilling and relaxing is all well and good, and we could all use more of it, but as far as children’s creativity goes, the question arises…is coloring too limited an activity for young children? It’s hard not to consider it inferior to drawing if one views creative expression in a simple, hierarchical way. There are certainly those who believe it is harmful for creativity and that ready-made images set too perfect an example of what drawing should look like. This Artful Parent blog post sums the concerns up quite well and indeed, follows in the footsteps of Susan Striker, an art teacher who published a series of Anti-coloring Books in the late 1970s and 1980s to push back against the ‘mindless’ coloring trend of those decades.

While the view of coloring books as ‘damaging to a child’s imagination and creativity’ is a tad extreme in my view, it is worth considering this issue. For most kids, drawing and coloring are usually part of a healthy mix of activities and a love for coloring books is only concerning if it pushes drawing aside completely.

For me, the new popularity of adult coloring books brought my own childhood love (obsession!) with coloring books to the forefront. Like many children, I decided at some point that I wasn’t good at drawing and rarely did it. Educators have long noted that around age 9 or 10, many children lose confidence in their ability to draw because their ability to draw realistically falls short of their expectations. For many children, this happens even earlier and it’s worth being vigilant as a parent to try and delay it as long as possible!

While it’s true that children express their creativity in hundreds of ways (a child who prefers coloring to drawing can still be highly creative in imaginary play, story-telling and other forms of expression), drawing does hold a particularly important place in early childhood development. As Sandra Crosser, a professor of early childhood education, writes in Early Childhood News:

The simple act of drawing does indeed play an important role in a child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Like no other activity, drawing allows young children to express emotions, experience autonomy, and build confidence. Unfortunately, as they grow older, children lose their confidence in and enthusiasm for the one activity that can give so much pleasure.

For this reason, it’s worth being aware of some common pitfalls in speaking about art, particularly for parents of young children. This list of suggestions from the same source is a good reminder for us all:

  1. Provide children with nontoxic drawing materials and loads of paper starting during the second year.
  1. Model drawing. Show children that you like to draw and make designs but do not model WHAT children should draw.
  1. Encourage drawing efforts by talking about the beautiful colors, pointy lines, and thin shapes the child has made.
  1. Rather than asking the child “What is it?,” invite the child to tell you about the drawing. Asking “What is it?” suggests that the child has failed to depict what he or she intended.
  1. Forego the temptation to provide coloring book type outlines for children to fill in. Instead provide a variety of shapes, colors, textures of papers, and a variety of drawing tools for the child to create his or her own drawing.
  1. Talk about concepts like thick, thin, wide, narrow, dark, light, edge, shape, contour, illustrations, artist, illustrator, straight, crooked, open curve, and closed curve.
  1. Display high-quality drawings at the child’s eye level. Include them in the dramatic play, book, and block areas as well as in the art center.
  1. Play beautiful music to accompany drawing. Talk about how the tempo of music changes the drawings.
  1. Give children the freedom to choose the subjects and colors of their drawings. We should not dictate how to draw or how to color the child’s project. If we do that, it becomes the adult’s project which the child is forced to emulate.
  1. Rather than drawing for the child, ask helpful questions and make suggestions. Encourage children’s efforts and voice confidence in their ability to solve their drawing problems.

Here is a schematic showing stages of drawing development (in which the text might be more useful than the image) and another useful reminder of How to Talk to Kids about their Art.

drawing stages 2

Meanwhile, back to the adult coloring craze — I recently tried it again and can’t deny its calming effect. It does feel a bit mindless, but that’s sort of the point, at least for me. A bit like “meditation-lite”, but that’s still a win, given how hard it is for me to meditate. I don’t get around to it very often, but Lila, our 5 year old, and I love the Secret Garden series and these colored pencils for its detailed drawings (artist fave Prismacolors and ergosoft Staedtlers, both upgrades from the set of 50 Camel oil pastels I used to request every August for my Rakhi gift as a coloring fanatic in India).

In the end, comparing coloring to drawing is probably a bit unfair; while drawing is more creative and serves an important expressive role, relaxing with a bit of ‘easy’ coloring has its place, too. So thanks Johanna Basford, and thanks to you for reading!

Nitasha