“Coloring Outside the Lines” has become a rallying call phrase to all of those who break the standard and do not follow established norms. The suggestion is that coloring outside the lines, as in children’s coloring books, is an admirable thing, and that trying to get children to color inside the lines is a bad thing.
Not so fast.
Although I admire the spirit behind the “Coloring Outside the Lines” concept, I also recognize that children developing skills around coloring is more complicated than that.
I have been a Teaching Artist for preschoolers for the better part of a year now, and seeing different children attempting to master fine motor skills and reasoning skills, it compels me to take pause with the rallying call.
We need to teach children these skills, because the mastery of holding a crayon and learning to use it to represent things in our daily lives is important foundational learning.
We need not admonish teachers or the “establishment” for educating children in this endeavor. They are required to teach these skills for a reason. Children who do not develop good fine motor skills struggle in many other areas of education. Following directions and learning to cooperate with expectations are also important skills. Children need to be able to color within the lines in order to move forward in their education.
I am not sure where the rallying call came from. My guess is that it originated with famous people who were creative prodigies that demonstrated creative pursuits beyond their childhood teachers’ understanding, and thus felt shamed for their unwillingness to settle for simple fine motor skills. John Lennon was known to be a creative prodigy who demonstrated a range of behavioral difficulties in school because his teachers did not know how to support his creativity.
I think the key here is that we need to support each child as we teach them skills. Shame is not a good teaching tool for any skill. Children need to learn to master skills that may not be natural for them without feeling bad about themselves. Support and positive guidance can help them try things that are hard without shaming.
It is not an all or nothing thing, however. Although children need to learn things that are tough for them, they also need to explore their natural proclivities. There is a balance between creative exploration and skill development. The two need to go hand in hand.
As we mature and become adults, we often lose that creative exploration side of the balance, and feel like we are missing something. We have focused so much on skill mastery and “following the rules”, we lose sight of personal growth and individuality. It is this phase of life where the “coloring outside the lines” call has resonance.
If you have spent your life trying to be obedient, following all the rules, and “coloring inside the lines”, you can reach a point where you feel that you have lost a sense of self. It is here where you need to try different things and break out of confining activities that no longer have purpose. Coloring outside the lines can be liberating at this point.
The important thing to remember is that, despite certain activities being important to our development as human beings, they may lose their purpose as we grow into new phases of our lives. Freeing ourselves from them can be as important as mastering them were in our youth.
Regardless of whether we color in the lines or not, we are important and of worth.
When I was a child, I loved to color in coloring books. I enjoyed coloring inside the lines, and I enjoyed the process of finding ways to make my pictures unique, despite their uniformity. My classmates may have had the same picture to color, but mine always had to be more vibrant and more colorful. I also enjoyed drawing my own pictures and coloring them.
I was identified early on as a creative child. I learned to do as I was expected, but I was also encouraged to do more than just that. My family and my teachers encouraged me artistically and helped me find ways to explore life through creative activities. it is that kind of support, I believe, that all children need, whether they are artistic or not.
I rely on that early learning each time I paint the portrait of someone’s pet. Although I follow certain tried and true paths in my process, I also explore each painting as a new adventure. I both follow and break rules as I go. I defy standards, using a painting technique that diverges from what most artists do, but I only do that because I explored and found different ways to do things to meet my goals.
I couldn’t do that without having a basic understanding of the rules in the first place.
Each time I go into a classroom to teach, I always challenge myself to be supportive as I encourage children to try new skills and attempt new strategies. I feel the balance as I engage with each child, guiding them in following directions to do the task at hand, yet also giving them a sense of value and self worth regardless of accomplishment. I find that they appreciate their accomplishments more this way than if I were to shame them for not following a direction.
I think I do the same thing with myself as I paint a painting.
Striking that balance is what the adventure of art, and life, is all about.
Life is an Adventure!