To Colour or Not To Colour


by Shastri Maharaj

It is a common occurrence to see children engaging in the business of producing lovely pictures with markers, crayons and colouring pencils on pre drawn images in colouring books. These books, along with coloring materials, make excellent gifts for the young child. Themes and subject matter, which are current and topical, make irresistible presents. Fido, Bart Simpson, Sesame Street characters, Ninja Turtles etc. easily become ready made themes for colouring books.

As adults, we are proud of our children's ability to copy cartoon characters. We are quick to brag "my child likes art, you should see the art he does in his colouring books". A feeling of security, contentment and accomplishment is thus felt by these adults as they willingly encourage children to re-produce more coloured pictures in "the name of art" in their colouring books. 0f course, it is one way of keeping the kids quiet for a while. Their attention span is challenged.

This trend or norm has now enveloped the minds of most people to the extent that it has become the single most important practice used in the facilitation of children's art practice. It is now normal for most people to associate the use of colouring books as an art activity (both at home and in school).

Such a practice can therefore be misconstrued as being educationally and artistically appropriate in contributing towards the child's all round development. The question then arises as to exactly what are the benefits derived from the use of colouring books. Is it artistically sound? What type of skills do children learn from doing this activity?

Young minds are impressionable. There is tremendous curiosity and willingness to be inventive, innovative, creative and unique. However, adult intervention in most cases, determines the outcome of children's expressed ideas and actions. Children's self expression (be it visual or otherwise) has a lot to do with their personal experience, whether direct or indirect vicarious or other. It is therefore necessary that we be careful about the stereotyped information systems and procedural packages that are supposed to enhance our children's learning.

The child's inability to colour neatly within shapes and the restriction of the amount of colour to size of shape may lead to frustration and a negative association with such exercises. Such practices impress upon the child that being neat and precise are the tenets for the acceptable finished art product. However, not all children possess such a kind of temperament or personality potential.

Further, it must be emphasized that there are very little (if any at all) benefits to be derived from colouring books. These books essentially do not stimulate the child's imagination. All images are pre-drawn and composed by sources other than the child. The task of the child is simply that of colouring empty spaces and shapes. In most instances these shapes are stereotyped reproductions from situations in real life. An example of such shapes are the circle and the square.

A preference to maintain the repetition of these shapes are continuously reinforced in other books, advertisements, cartoons, clothing and also in the classroom. As a matter of fact, many adults still draw a flower and the sun with similar duplication. The dependency on the ready made imagery in colouring books quickly leads to insufficient, independent thought and inventiveness on the part of children. Originality and innovation along with their own unique self-expression are substituted with prescriptive remedies to themes and shapes.

What must be made clear about colouring books is whether they enhance learning in terms of memory, knowledge and detail of a variety of subject matters. Are children better able to transfer information, let's say from a colouring book on Ninja Turtles to a Math, Science, English or Social Studies lesson at school? And at home, how does the colouring book address and personalize information concerning the child's experience within his environment?

Having to add and subtract is now the acceptable thing to do on a calculator, there is no need to perform tasks like that or others of a similar nature mentally. Does this mean that the colouring book acts as a surrogate, mind feeding the child with ideas to create his imagination?

I think that it is necessary that children be assertive in everything that they do. They must be confident, positive, daring and be ready for a challenge. In this way they can become articulate and have some degree of control in terms of what "is fed" to them.

What is needed is to subtly redirect the child's focus with respect to the use of the colouring book. When the book is all used up, that is that. Now comes the time to buy him another kind of book: a drawing book or sketch pad. The child can use all the colouring paraphernalia in any manner he or she can devise.

Whatever visual expressions that are created by the child must, however, be acknowledged as a positive effort if there is to be a continued and congenial relationship between the child, his imagination and his art. It will be the first time maybe that the child will be communicating his experiences end dreams on a wide range of topics in a visual, silent and subjective nature. The imagery in the child's coloured drawings can operate as an indicator in understanding how the child may think, feel and perceive life.

It is in these simple drawings that most children will find solace and an arena to "vent" and express "pent- up" energies. For it is here where most of the learning will occur. The child will have to initiate every action relevant to his art work. It will demand decision-making (where to put what and how and what colour and medium to use). He will have to depend upon his memory or "look and draw", relying on his powers of observation to discover shapes, textures and lines. Then there will be problem solving, whether to leave things in the composition as they are or to edit or redefine them where necessary.

Eventually, his attention span and his powers of concentration will transfer to all other facets of his live, including all the academic subjects he does or will do at school. In time, that child will blossom into a dynamic individual as he explores the path to creative self development.