Adult coloring books – they’re everywhere! Grocery store checkout lines, bookstore shelves, craft store displays and online booksellers are all stocked with a plentiful variety of adult coloring books. A search for “coloring books” on Pinterest yields tons of results about the benefits of coloring, shading techniques, and free coloring book  printables. Even actress Zooey Deschanel recently shared a photo of her coloring book page with her facebook fans. Fans of “coloring inside the lines” tout that the process of rubbing pigment onto paper is relaxing, calming and even meditative.

Coloring Books are Best for Adults, Not Kids

Adults use coloring books, to calm, to relax, to de-stress and that works well, for adults. Coloring books are generally not the best tool to hand to a preschooler. Yes, yes, I know, preschoolers are given coloring books everyday in every city on the globe. I’d like to shed some light on the reasons why you might want to rethink the purchase of a coloring book for the growing and expanding brain of a young child.

Before I dive in, I’d like to tell you that the “no coloring books” recommendation is nothing new. Early childhood experts and educators have been recommending age appropriate art experiences that do not include coloring books for years and years – for over 50 years. The idea of not providing coloring books to preschoolers is not a new one. Early childhood professors across many continents have been solidly teaching this concept to college students for decades.

If Not Coloring Books, then What?

So if teachers and parents want to best stimulate creativity, self-expression, and art concepts such as space, color, texture, shape, space, etc. what activities accomplish this goal? Most of those activities start with something simple – a blank piece of paper. A blank piece of paper has endless possibilities for choice of color, texture, shape, space, etc.  A blank piece of paper allows for self-expression. A blank piece of paper allows for discovery – to see what unfolds, and allows for choice – what do I want to do or add next?

Process Art – The Choice of Early Childhood Experts

This process of choice and unfolding is called “process art” and it’s what is recommended by the National Associatio
n for the Education of Young Children and by early childhood experts and most early childhood teachers. If you searchPinterest for “process art” you’ll see examples of the wide range of possibilities for allowing preschoolers to explore art materials. You’ll notice photos of

  • Spraying paint onto paper from a spray bottle
  • Adding paint to shaving cream for finger painting
  • Dipping brooms into paints and painting on large pieces of paper hung on the wall
  • Dipping corn cobs into paint and rolling the cobs on paper

Why is Process Art Recommended for Preschoolers?

Process art has no end product in mind. It’s also referred to as “open ended art.” It’s the process of exploring and discovering that is beneficial to preschoolers. It’s kind of like science inquiry. With process art, the young brain gets to ask questions . .

  • What will happen if I mix blue and yellow paint together?
  • How is that texture created when I paint with a comb?
  • Where do I want to place another sticker dot on my paper?

Process art also allows for the child to be in charge of the learning and the experience of learning (instead of the adult.) Contrast process art with its nemesis, product art. Product art has an end result in mind. Coloring books are considered “product art” because the end result is already designed for a child.

Another example of product art is crafts. Crafts are generally an assembly of items that will, in the end yield a product result, a snowman for example. In some preschool classes, the teacher might cut out large white circles, hats, eyes, mouth, nose and buttons for the children to “make” a snowman. The teacher tells the kids where to glue the parts, the kids follow those directions and everyone’s snowman looks like . . . well, like a snowman. What has the child gained in this product oriented experience? Not much about art or discovery.

Social-Emotional Benefits of Process Art

In addition to discovering art concepts, process art also enhances a child’s social-emotional learning. Consider the following list of possible conclusions children might discover as they create process art on a daily basis in a preschool classroom.

  • What colors, textures, shapes do I like best? What am I discovering about myself when I make choices to create art?
  • How are my choices different from my peers’ choices? What can I learn about my friend, Will from seeing his choices and methods for creating art? Wow, how is it that we all used the same materials for creating our art, but they all look so different?
  • How can I express my moods and emotions through the use of color, texture and shape? How do my creations look different when I feel different emotions?
  • How can my art recap or recount an event or story from my life?

How Product Art Creates Stress for Young Children

Art for kids is supposed to be enjoyable and beneficial. There are many ways that product art produces stress for children.

  • Expectations from Adults – When adults expect children to color inside the lines or draw well or that a piece of art should “look like something” those expectations are hard to fulfill if you’re a toddler or preschooler.
  • Expectations from The Child – Children take cues from adults. If a child hears that the picture is supposed to look like something or that coloring is only supposed to happen inside the lines, the child often develops the same expectations. How many people think they aren’t good at art because of a childhood experience?
  • Comparisons to Others –  Product art demands a product. How many times have you watched a child crumble in tears because her craft project doesn’t look like the teacher’s model? (The point is not that children should never be disappointed. It’s that there’s no reason to set up a child for a feeling of failure or disappointment.)

Stress creates misbehavior and increases misbehavior.

Fine Motor Skills Benefits of Process Art

Using a variety of materials to create art offers substantial benefits for developing a child’s fine motor skills. Preschoolers need lots of opportunities to use their hands and fingers in different ways. When exploring with a wide variety of process art materials, preschoolers will get the benefits of . . .

  • holding paintbrushes, markers, pompoms, cotton swabs, etc.
  • cutting yarn, straws, different thicknesses of papers, etc.
  • manipulating play dough, squeeze bottles, spray bottles, rolling pins, etc.

Supervise the safe use of materials with preschoolers. Use non-toxic paint, glue and materials. Provide child-sized safety scissors. (Be aware that preschool scissors will cut hair.)

Are You Excited Now? Helpful Tips

If you haven’t offered process art activities before, I hope you’re now ready to provide plenty of open-ended art activities for the preschooler in your life. Here are a few tips to help you along the way.

  1. Don’t ask the child, “What are you drawing?” or “What are you making?” (That’s a product art type of question.) If you must comment, you might comment on what you notice. “I notice that you chose lots of blue and yellow for this one.”
  2. Don’t “judge” the art by telling you child that the art is “good” or “beautiful.” Focus on the process. Maybe ask, “What did you enjoy about creating this?” or “Do you want to tell me anything about your creation?”
  3. Create an area in your home where your child is allowed to create art or use the same space (such as the kitchen table) to create art. This can help some kids with the issue of not drawing on walls. If a child associates a space or certain spaces in the home with art, then he will hopefully internalize that the bathroom wall isn’t the place to color with a marker. Use washable markers. Keep permanent markers out of reach of your kids.
  4. Remember safety issues: Supervise art activities. Don’t use small items that may be a choking hazard for children under age three. Keep scissors and other sharp objects out of reach and only provide them when you can supervise the use.

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