Staying Inside the Lines

Coloring books for children have long been a big item but recently have been newly promoted with sophisticated and “artistic” drawing outlines for children to color.  The negative side of these books is that too often children get the message that the “right” way to color is to “stay inside the lines.”  That becomes the measure of how good a job a child has done and for which children may be praised when they succeed in adult eyes.

By coincidence, a number of preschool classes I observed recently were all engaged in the art section of their curriculum.  It is fascinating to see changes in how children of ages two to almost three use art materials such as paint, crayons, clay and various kinds of brushes.  In these particular classes children are often given paper of various shapes and sizes on which to work while the large tables at which they sit are also completely covered with paper.  The children are not required to stay on their individual pieces of paper and the younger children in particular, often prefer to paint and draw on the large paper underneath.

Although the children are all given smocks to wear, many children refuse to wear them and teachers accepts this while helping children push up their sleeves.  A favorite activity of many children is to paint their fingers, palms and to continue painting various places beyond those designated.  What is so interesting is to see how children are not at all inhibited by the idea of working within a specific space and become more engaged with exploring the potential of the medium than with what adults might see as its presumed realistic purpose. 

Of course, children in this general age group are busy exploring many aspects of their world, and the question of what the lines are within which they are expected to behave is much broader than the piece of paper in front of them.  Parents are constantly confronted with this question as they try to determine what their appropriate expectations are or should be for their children.  Parents draw the lines and children comply, rebel, or in various ways explore the flexibility of those lines.

One can see this exploration in the way they approach their art projects.  A group of almost three year olds were given paper cut in the shape of suburban style cars.  They each had trays with different color paints which they seemed to know from past experience would form other colors when mixed.  Some children seemed to strive to color the entire car in one color, while others were more interested in trying out the different colors.

As the project proceeded, the teacher gave out different things that could be used in whatever way the children wished to enhance or decorate their cars.  What was interesting to see was the way children moved further and further away in their work from the reality of a car.  For example, they were given shapes of car wheels and steering wheels to use however they liked.  Almost none of the children used these additions in realistic ways but rather as decorations.

One girl did place the wheels exactly where they would be in a car but then proceeded to cover the entire shape with paint in such a way that the wheels were no longer distinguishable as such.  In general, what happened was that presented with literal images children turned them into abstract creations.  In effect, they did not “stay within the lines.”  Their own creativity was stronger than reality.

Notable was the fact that these children were old enough to stay in control of their own need for creative exploration.  Two of them who had purposefully painted their palms, while waiting to wash up made a game of slapping each other’s palms without going any further.  One of them was a girl who while refusing to wear a smock did not have a single paint spot on her white pants.

At this age, such internal controls are fluid, and a parent or adult in charge is always faced with the challenge of leaving space for children to explore while knowing when to provide the controls they are not yet always able to provide for themselves.  Examples such as this art project remind us of the need to support children’s creativity while finding the limits of creative freedom.