Shared musings: Colouring-in, templates and worksheets in early childhood settings

By Dr. Gai Lindsay (with excerpts from a bunch of fabulous early childhood practitioners, academics and colleagues – included with permission).

This blog aims to expand reflection and contribute to the ongoing discussion about the choices early childhood professional make in relation to stencils, colouring-in and worksheets.

I will firstly share excerpts from a professional discussion I recently had with several colleagues (including excerpts and adaptions used with permission from Lisa Terreni’s article in ecARTnz (link below) along with my own provocations. Be sure to read until the end of the blog where I offer examples of open-ended ‘colouring’ alternatives for your reflection, pedagogy and practice.

The need for a conversation

Confirming the need for ongoing dialogue about the contested use of colouring-in stencils and worksheets in early childhood spaces a very recent Facebook post asked:

Sourced from Facebook Post 5.03.2020

Amongst the responses, several people adamantly defended the practice, often grounding their stance in their own experience:

  • “Go for it”
  • “Children get excited to colour a picture of their favourite cartoon character”
  • “It’s OK for fine-motor development.”
  • “I coloured-in as a child and it made me more confident and artistic.”
  • “It’s a suitable as a way to follow through on children’s interests now and then”.

A couple of very concerning responses stated:

  • “I think everyone in this industry overthinks things too much…Everyone needs to lighten up.”
  •  “I definitely see the need for the National Quality Standard, but sometimes I think they’re a little overboard!!”

Fortunately, others drew upon their professional knowledge to articulate their desire to offer open-ended arts experiences that honour children’s right to develop the confidence to make marks and express their own ideas and expand, rather than shut down and potentially stagnate children’s development, learning and artistic identities.

Thanks to Zekiah Johnson from Sparrow Early Learning for allowing me to share her balanced comment here:

“I wouldn’t do it. There is plenty of time for that later. Just mark-making on plain paper for this age group is appropriate development for fine motor skills anyway. And I also hate when children don’t have confidence to draw for themselves as they are so used to pictures drawn by adults being ‘perfect’ so they lose confidence…They need time to develop their own unique styles and creativity before we give them mass produced crap. I won’t argue that it doesn’t ever have a place, for mindfulness as an example. But for 0-2, I would never.”

Zekiah Johnson

A call for professional  reflection

This kind of reflective approach to pedagogy and practice is required when early childhood professionals seek to honour children’s agency, competency and rights.  For example, the guide to the National Quality Standards for the Australian early childhood sector clearly states that to implement child-directed learning requires the choice “of open-ended resources and materials that allow children to express themselves (rather than using templates, stencils or resources that limit children’s capacity to create, interpret, experiment and explore)” (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, 2020, p.119).

Collegial reflections and acknowledgments

I am privileged to count several amazing colleagues from around the world as inspiring practitioners, academics and now friends. These fabulous, reflective professionals care as much as I do about quality early childhood education and visual arts pedagogy in particular.

I am also fortunate to have attended several International Art in Early Childhood conferences in their company. When we get together, this passionate band of early childhood educators and academics delight in sharing research, strategies, debates and ideas about how we can best support children and those who teach them to experience the delight of enriching visual arts learning and play with the language of art.

Recently, one of those fabulous colleagues, Dr Lisa Terreni from Victoria University in Wellington, NZ posed a question about colouring-in, having been horrified at an apparent proliferation of stencils in New Zealand services.

The rich dialogue that followed led Lisa to develop a timely article on the topic for ecARTnz magazine, the sister publication that inspired me to establish my own ecARToz blog. Thanks to Lisa and the other contributing ‘thinkers’ listed below for allowing me to share excerpts and reflections from the article in this blog. For the full article, see ecARTnz, Issue 19,2020.

Lisa Terreni authored and collated the article, “Thinking outside the lines: Colouring-in books, templates and worksheets” following a to-and-fro e-mail dialogue with Margaret Brooks, Kathy Danko McGee, Rachel Denee, Michele Johnston, Catherine Morgan, Lesley Pohio, Rosemary Richards, Janette Kelly-Ware and myself.

The development of the article was inspired by a request from an early childhood teacher colleague seeking content to share with her early childhood education (ECE) colleagues about why they shouldn’t offer colouring-in sheets to children as part of their programme. In addition, Lisa was concerned about the increasing proliferation of colouring-in sheets and template related activities she was noticing during student supervision visits to early childhood centres.

The subsequent e-mail conversation highlighted that the debate about the assumed limitations, benefits or possible restrictions related to the provision of colouring-in sheets, worksheets or templates is not simply a case of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to such provisions. The reasons educators either condemn or defend such provisions are complex. My own research highlighted the range of complexities stemming from the personal and professional beliefs, confidence and knowledge of early childhood educators. Indeed, both my years of experience as an early childhood teacher and more recently my research, affirm for me that attitudes and pedagogy are not changed by the imposition of rules and mantras, but by deep reflection about our own attitudes, knowledge, practice and context.

Therefore, rather than republish the full ecARTnz article here, this blog will outline some of the ideas, challenges and musings raised in the article by the experienced early childhood teachers and academics I so respect. In so doing, perhaps this can spur on team dialogue and deep reflection about the place (or not) of colouring-in, templates and worksheets in early childhood contexts.

Lisa writes, “I am convinced that fundamental to quality education for young children attending early childhood services is the provision of rich learning opportunities in the arts. Skilled teachers are those who support children’s use of multiple literacies so they can develop their own unique working theories about the world they live in. In particular, visual art gives children another voice for expressing their ideas, understandings (and sometimes their concerns) about the people, places, events and things that are important to them in their lives. Young children are in the process of mastering language (sometimes more than one) and their ability to express themselves verbally is sometimes still developing. Hence, the arts can help to make their thinking visible to the children and adults they work with.”

Lisa Terreni

Fond memories of colouring-in?

While various online articles tend to condemn colouring-in sheets, some had fond memories of using colouring-in books as children. Lisa recalled, “My granny would pop one under my pillow when I stayed the night and I would wake up to find this little treat.”

The debate is real, with Rachel Denee, (PhD student, owner and teacher at Daisies Early Learning Centre, and parent of young children) noting the need for balance:

“As a parent, I have given my children colouring-in books at times…[but] I know that my children get plenty of opportunities at home for open-ended art making with quality materials and lots of time, space and conversation, so if I choose to give them a colouring book for, say, a long plane trip, I know it’s balanced out by their usual art experiences.”

Rachel Denee

At the same time, Rachel notes that the choices a busy parent might make for their children in the home should be distinguished from the choices made by early childhood teachers, commenting: “I don’t want my children to be handed colouring-in sheets at kindergarten or school because I think it’s lazy teaching. From my dual parent/teacher perspective … professional teachers have different obligations than busy parents, and just because something is fine to use at home it isn’t necessarily appropriate in an education setting.”

Michele Johnston, owner and supervisor at St Andrews Epsom Early Learning Centre in Auckland noted that colouring-in books have no place at her centre, believing they don’t support or encourage children’s creativity.

“To me” she says, “it’s a mindless exercise that a child could do without any thought processes involved”.

Michelle Johnstone

Access a blog further outlining the pros and cons of colouring-in here.

In our conversation, I added my warning that:

 “If stereotyped images and structured processes are all that children are offered in terms of art languages, then children’s ‘voice’ is restricted to the choices of social culture made for them by others and the images of culture that devalue their drawing and meaning making.”

Gai Lindsay

And yet, during my own PhD data collection, I observed an intentional addition to the drawing table that made me question my previously hard-and-fast rejection of all colouring-in experiences. In one of my participant ECE services, the teachers consciously included mandala colouring-in sheets for a child who routinely used these with his bi-polar mum as a calming experience. It was a familiar and therefore calming process for this child and the teachers believed that their acceptance of that reality for the child was far more productive than a hard-line approach to all colouring-in. This challenging observation highlighted for me the need for teachers to sensitively consider children’s individual interests and disposition and the provision of inclusive arts experiences, while aiming to ensure the selection of images that are as open-ended as possible.

I believe it is a risk to condemn colouring-in to a lesser art status because colouring-in, like many traditional artisan crafts, can potentially be a legitimate art-making technique (if you don’t believe me, see the blackline/colouring-in style] artworks produced by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol or Hayao Miyazaki )

Therefore, rather than a blanket condemnation of the technique of colouring-in…perhaps with children we should be asking the question of what to colour-in?

Catherine Morgan, director, supervisor and teacher at The Point Preschool in Sydney Australia, insightfully highlights the nuance of decision making required of early childhood teachers:

“Do the children I teach colour-in? Yes, they do. They draw their own pictures and colour them in. Sometimes other children draw pictures for them and they colour them in. But at preschool, we do not provide commercially produced pictures which are often dumbed down for children, stereotypical and culturally inappropriate, and produced by adults. Maybe they do at home, but this is not part of our arts practice.”

Catherine Morgan

And yet, colouring-in books for adults have experienced a significant resurgence as a therapeutic outlet in recent years. Perhaps nostalgia for the memories and experiences of childhood find fertile ground in our rushed, overloaded lives? Dr Margaret Brooks, an artist and academic at the University of New England (Armidale, Australia) reminds us of ‘The Anti-Colouring-in Book’ developed  by art educator Susan Striker which present ways to promote creativity and problem solving within the prompts of a more open ended blackline master sheet. Adding to that provocation, Kathy Danko-McGhee, suggests that colouring-in books potentially hinder children’s positive feelings about their own art, stating:

Children’s art helps adults see that children understand the world, but more importantly how they understand it. The symbols children use to represent their understanding become increasingly complex, illustrating the child’s ability to think in more abstract ways. This complexity and attention to detail in their art- making also increases as children have more opportunities to explore various art media. Giving children a colouring book does not afford the child any of these opportunities for an enriching and quality learning experience. When a pre-drawn image is offered to a child to colour in, it puts into motion a feeling of doubt that their own drawings are not good enough. This effects their artistic self-esteem. Pre-drawn images in colouring books are often of poor quality and include stereotypes which can be perpetuated.

Kathy Danko-McGhee

Theoretical Reminders and Guidelines

In our e-mail musings, Lesley Pohio reminded us that debates about questionable pedagogies “should be grounded within deeper pedagogical discussion.” Lesley wondered whether educators who continue to justify colouring-in sheets and templates do so because they weren’t paying attention during their training or interpreted curriculum framework guidelines. Whether referencing Te Whāriki in New Zealand, The Early Years Learning Framework in Australia or numerous other early childhood curriculum documents across the world, contemporary approaches for young children’s learning include notions of the competent, agentic child as an active learner.

The arts are generally (although often ambiguously) recognised as a language through which young children can explore, make and communicate meaning. Despite this focus on the notion of constructing knowledge through relationships with other people, with the environment and with materials, my research suggested that many educators disregard the idea that visual arts learning can be supported by active teaching, scaffolding and intentional modelling.

I believe that although undergraduate pre-service teacher students clearly must have listened during their training (after all – they passed assessments and graduated?!), their pre-existing lack of confidence and knowledge in the domain of the visual arts (McArdle calls it ‘baggage’) stops  them from truly internalising  the language of art for themselves. If pre-service coursework does not specifically teach students to feel confident with and knowledgeable about visual arts materials, processes and techniques, we are asking them to plan for children’s learning in a pedagogical vacuum. More importantly, if subject content in the visual arts does not disrupt a student’s deeply held beliefs in their personal capacity to make art and to plan for visual arts learning experiences with children, the default choice may be to revert to their own childhood experiences as source of ideas about what to implement with children – resulting in the use of colouring-in sheets, worksheets, photocopied activity templates and the search in Pinterest or Facebook groups for ‘a valentine’s day activity to do with my babies’.

In relation to such choices, Lesley Pohio states:

“To me, it represents a dumbing down and deficit view that children aren’t capable of designing their own images … If we are promoting the idea that children are representing their ideas and thinking through their engagement with materials, then how do these pre drawn outlines reflect their individual and unique thinking and experiences as they search for meaning?”

Lesley Pohio

What is the alternative?

In our e-mail discussion, Lisa asked how we support educators to make more enriching choices for children, suggesting “It is likely that if teachers do not have clear ideas about the provision of quality good art education learning experiences, then it’s probable that colouring-in sheets could become an accepted norm.”

Interestingly, philosopher John Dewey (in Experience and Education, 1939, pp.13-14) warned us of the risk of habits explaining that while all experiences may “increase a person’s automatic skill in a particular direction” it also may “land him in a groove or rut; the effect again is to narrow the field of further experience”. He also warned that while familiarity breeds contempt it “also breeds something like affection,” stating that meaningless activities may get agreeable if we persist in them and they are all we ever do. He suggested that it is possible for the mind to develop interest (and perhaps a sense of comfort and safety? – MINE) in routine activities and therefore be unaware of opportunities for truly enriching growth through high quality arts experiences.

Challenging existing pedagogical approaches can be challenging.

Karen Barnes from Ology Early Childhood Consulting shares the strategies she uses to help educators realise the limitations of close ended versus open ended experiences for young children.

Additionally, Rachel Denee suggests proactive approach, suggesting:

It might be useful to focus on alternative teaching strategies to colouring-in sheets. If we want teachers to stop using an easy tool, we need to offer accessible alternatives: ways to set up simple quality resources, sentence starters for talking to children about their work, suggestions of diverse artists to look at for inspiration, and strong encouragement for teachers to actually spend time alongside children in the art area.

Rachel Denee

This is the approach I try to take with this blog.

I believe it is not enough to tell people to consider new ways of working artistically with children. Condemning the use of colouring-in sheets and other structured activities will not shift attitudes unless we support teachers by equipping them with knowledge, examples of practice and suggested strategies to support a new appreciation for the power of their choices.  It is vital that early childhood professionals be able to differentiate between experiences that may limit rather than extend children’s visual arts development, engagement and expression.

An issue we raised in the article, and one that was evident in my PhD work, is the lack of professional development for teachers. I added to our conversation:

“I agree that the reason many educators resort to (and defend) colouring sheets often stems from their own void of arts skills and knowledge. My PhD highlighted that for sure – which is what I am now trying to challenge and to build self-efficacy and visual arts pedagogical content knowledge….when people know better and believe they can – then children will experience higher quality (Big E) Experiences!”

Gai Lindsay (For an article explaining little ‘e’ and big ‘E’ experience see my 2016 article here.)

In conclusion, there are so many alternatives to stencils, worksheets and colouring-in activities (see below for some links and suggestions).

Rather than restrict and limit children’s opportunities for growth and learning, we must honour children’s competence, intelligence and interests and support their confidence to speak visual and graphic languages through art play with high-quality, open-ended, child-engaged, purposeful visual arts experiences.

Ideas for quality

For those who aim to honour children’s agency, rights and developing artistic knowledge and confidence while valuing children’s capabilities and development, the following proposals offer alternatives for the process of filling lines and spaces with colour and texture.

Such experiences powerfully support children to develop attention, focus, hand-eye coordination, science concepts, problem solving, fine-motor control, language, collaborative discovery, colour knowledge and so much more; without compromising their interests, rights, agency or opportunities for playful learning.

Technology (STEAM) inspired art:

  • Shadow puppets: Children draw their characters and ‘colour-in’ with cellophane. See here for more information.
  • Photocopy children’s drawings to create child-created colouring-in stencils.
  • Embellish and draw/colour on photocopied images or children’s photographs.
  • Trace shadows to create lines and shapes in meaningful ways.

Scribble art:

Inspired by artists.

The work of artists who use outlines and blocks of colour can be a way to share processes of artistic colouring-in with children. For example, the work of Sonia Delaunay may support exploration of colouring materials and techniques. See some ideas here.

More colouring-in options.

  • Collect textures using charcoal.
  • Colour patterns and mandalas rather than selecting commercial cartoon characters or other simplified line drawings of objects (which may undermine children’s confidence to draw their own images and forms).
  • Colour-in and decorate children’s written names.

Ephemeral ‘colouring-in’

  • ‘Colour-in’ and make patterns and designs using collections of loose parts and collections from nature.

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