How to offer creative, open-ended, and developmentally appropriate coloring books alternatives for kids.
Updated August 2022
You might think that I’m a fan of coloring books and coloring contests; I love art and creativity and have a whole career focused on making art with kids!
But when it comes to coloring books and coloring inside the lines, I feel that they are the antithesis of creativity.
Why I Don’t Like Coloring Books
Why do I have such strong feelings about coloring books?
Well, why do we choose coloring books?
- If our goal is to encourage kids to sit quietly, I get it. I, too, have often had that same wish.
- If our goal is to teach kids to draw, a coloring book with pre-drawn lines isn’t the answer.
- If our goal is to teach them to color within the lines, I’d say this is misguided.
Why do I think this is misguided?
I think coloring within the lines is overrated. There is no real benefit to it except neatness and an adult concept of what is right and fitting. And kids naturally begin coloring inside the lines over time as they develop, grow, and most importantly, care.
But why give them lines to color inside in the first place?
They are perfectly capable of drawing their own lines and pictures and deciding where to color those lines and pictures.
And that—making your own decisions about line, shape, color and placement—that is the very core of what makes art ART.
Not giving them adult-drawn, mimeographed sheets to color inside.
- If your goal is fine motor skills, I understand. It’s something we all want for our kids. Luckily real art (and much of real life) is perfect for developing and refining fine motor skills in a FUN, engaging, and developmentally appropriate way.
- If your goal is teaching kids to follow directions, I can think of ways to practice that still allow for open-ended creativity.
- If your goal is to keep the kids engaged and occupied on a trip or at a restaurant, I’d say there are other ways. (Try one of these art games!)
- If you’re offering coloring books as “art” times, it might be worth reconsidering.
Creating something from scratch is art. Coloring inside someone else’s lines? It might be relaxing and even fun at times, but it’s not truly art.
The #1 Alternative to Coloring Books for Kids
Instead of coloring books, give your child some blank pieces of paper and some markers.
They can draw and scribble and color their own art.
- If your goal is to have your child learn with an “educational” coloring book, I suggest going with engaging books and other ways to learn. I link to a lot in this post.
- If you’re giving your child a coloring book because it makes you feel better seeing and understanding the adult drawn lines that your 2 or 3 year old is scribbling over, I would encourage you: Learn to appreciate the scribble. Just as I remind adults not to say “I can’t draw”, I want to remind you how important and amazing scribbles are.
- If you’re giving your young child a coloring book to encourage your child to stop the eternal scribbling and learn how to draw already, you’re doing him a disservice. I realize that it feels like the scribbling stage is lasting forever, just like every stage with your first child can sometimes feel like forever.
But if you press coloring books or other ways of drawing on your child prematurely rather than allowing him to fully explore the scribbling stage, you may be stunting his development without realizing it. And not just in art and fine motor skills, but also in literacy and academic success.
Every toddler scribbles. It’s developmentally appropriate and important. And the more opportunities they have to scribble, the better!
Scribbling is an important precursor to drawing and writing.
And while it may look like something you want to discourage (It doesn’t look neat! You just don’t understand it! You want to prove that your child is smart and trainable and the next da Vinci!), scribbling is actually an important precursor to drawing and writing.
So encourage scribbling!
NOTE: For more on this, see the links, articles, and resources that I link to toward the end of this post on further reading and research on the importance of scribbling.
Development Stages in Kid’s Drawings
Around age 3, your toddler will naturally progress to the next stage, beginning to draw enclosed circles, suns, faces, and “mandalas.” If they have been given enough opportunity to scribble.
If the 3 year old has never had the opportunity to scribble, though, they will need to go through all the stages of scribbling first.
And once kids “can” draw faces and suns and other things, it’s still normal to continue to scribble as well.
But back to coloring books.
I hope I have convinced you that they are not really worth buying for your children.
But what to do when your kids are gifted coloring books?
Don’t worry about it.
What, you say? You just spent pages telling me that coloring books are bad!
Yeah, well, it’s not that coloring books are inherently bad. It’s more the motivation and intent in which they are given and how they are used. It’s more your attitude and words about coloring books, than anything. I think anything in moderation is fine and that making a huge deal about coloring books in front of your kids is not necessary.
While I never bought coloring books for my kids, they inevitably received a few here or there as gifts. And without me encouraging or discouraging it, they would color a page or two then lose interest. And sometimes I would help the discarded coloring book disappear from the house after a while. Sometimes they simply sat on our bookshelves for a few months.
Coloring books are not really all that interesting or helpful. And if left to stand on their own two feet, they don’t get much attention from most kids.
But it’s when we give coloring books excess power that they can become a problem.
How to Encourage Your Child’s Art Skills
Begin by offering paper and drawing tools.
Encourage kids to draw and scribble and create at whatever developmental stage they are at.
You don’t have to understand their art making. You can talk about the colors they are using, how into it they seem, and their lines and marks.
More Alternatives to Coloring Books for Kids
If your child is four or older and wants something other than a blank page, consider offering drawing prompts or art prompts sometimes. Drawing prompts, drawing games, and the right activity books are better for travel and waiting rooms than coloring books.
Creative Drawing Prompts & Games for Kids
- How to Encourage Children’s Creativity with Drawing Games and Silliness
- Inspire Your Kids with Creative Drawing Prompts (Printables)
- An Interactive Heart Drawing Activity
- How to Play the Scribble Drawing Game
- Creative Drawing Activities for Kids (Printables to Inspire Creative Drawing & Thinking)
- Double Doodle Art
Drawing Books for Kids
If you want to teach your child to draw and your child is expressing interest in learning how to draw certain things or learning how to draw more accurately, try an Ed Emberley step-by-step drawing book. Here are a few to consider:
Or, if you have the time and interest to provide guidance yourself, pick up a copy of Mona Brookes’ book, Drawing with Children (she also has classes in some areas). If this interests you, I have a few posts about using the Monart Method.
What do you think? I know I’m likely ruffling more than a few feathers with my stance on coloring books, but I’d love to hear your feedback.
Yes, I know many of us used coloring books as kids and turned out okay.
I know many of our kids used coloring books and are turning out okay.
And I know there are plenty of people who used coloring books and were able to draw and write just fine afterwards.
Coloring books are not bad, per se.
But they don’t take the place of offering kids the opportunity to explore, create and make without the parameter of adult-created lines.
Further Reading and Research on the Importance of Scribbling
- How Scribbling Fast Tracks Our Kids on Liz’s Early Learning Spot
- “The essential role of scribbling in the imaginative and cognitive development of young children“ by Elizabeth and Andrew Coates in Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 16, 1: pp. 60-83. , First Published April 7, 2015.
- “Reconsidering the scribbling stage of drawing: a new perspective on toddlers’ representational processes” by Claudio Longobardi, Rocco Quaglia, and Nathalie O. Lotti in Frontiers in Psychology, August 21, 2015.
- The Importance of Drawing and Scribbling
More Drawing Ideas for Kids
If you’re looking for more creative alternatives to coloring books for quiet time, travel time or anything in between, we have more than 75+ drawing activities for kids!
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