Keeping inside the lines: Why colouring in dominates early years education and what we can do about it…

WHY HAS COLOURING in taken over education? As a secondary level teacher myself, I was shocked when my son started school this September. His homework – homework, on the first night of Junior Infants! – was to colour in a snake. On the back of the sheet was an almost identical snake that he had coloured that day at school. This has continued as the weeks have gone past. “What did you do in school today?” I ask. “Colouring in,” comes the reply. And what’s for homework? Let me guess…

My son was one of nearly 60,000 children starting Junior Infants this year (according to Department for Education figures). Each family spends an average of €60 on workbooks, per child, per year. For the youngest, these are not much more than colouring in books, but with a €10 price tag: which makes a tidy €360,000 a year for publishers.

In a recent poll of parents, 80% expressed “concern with the levels of colouring in schools.” According to Mary, mother of four and six-year-old boys from Cork: “My youngest has just started Junior Infants and he has ten workbooks which I think is a disgrace, because I feel when they fill them out they forget them.”

Many parents regale me with stories of how they do their child’s homework colouring in. Every night. What purpose is being served by children being given the same thing to do at home every night that they do all day? What purpose is served by parents keeping up the illusion of doing it?

And it seems parents are not alone in this. Last month it was reported that The Irish Primary Principals Network were submitting a paper to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Curriculum Reform, asserting that the role of homework in the education system “requires serious research and analysis.”

“Homework can often be the source of a huge amount of stress between parents and children,” says IPPN Director Sean Cottrell.

A number of parents recall enjoying colouring in books, and activity books like dot-to-dot, and I know my children do too – when it is a freely chosen activity, not a daily chore. I also think that they can serve a useful purpose in giving children something active to do whilst listening, and as a valid way of learning, colouring in detailed images of accurate representations of, say, the bones in the human body, or different types of leaves. But what is done at school is of the ‘colour in the large cartoon caterpillar’ variety.

Certainly in my own primary education in the early eighties colouring in did not feature, nor did workbooks. We drew, we painted, practised our handwriting and sums in jotters, and made lots of constructions out of toilet rolls and egg boxes, all totally no-go in this day and age what with health and safety considerations and the mess. There is no sign of any of these activities, just lots of pre-literary work, and workbooks for every subject.

According to Professor John Funk, lecturer in early childhood studies and teacher education, at the University of Utah. “In school, colouring book-type pages are not appropriate, especially for young children.”
The only known research on the subject is fifty years old. Its author, Viktor Lowenfeld, Professor of art education at Pennsylvania State University, found that “colouring book pages can take almost all creative thinking away from 50-60% of children.”

According to Professor Funk, “the other 40% may be effected as well, but may have been nourished enough to at least maintain some creativity. In fact, if a child continually uses pre-made pages, he may never be satisfied with anything that he draws. He will be upset that his drawings look like a child’s drawings, not the adult drawings in colouring books.”

Surely, if schools give so much time to colouring, there must be good reason, backed up by research – right? Not so. According to professors of education from Dublin, Cambridge, and America, they know of no other research into the educational benefits of colouring in.

Says, Professor Paul Warwick of Cambridge University: “Colouring in…is generally held to have little value, except with respect to the development of fine motor skills (though whether this justifies spending swathes of time on it seems very open to question).”

My son’s teacher, when questioned, asserted this development of fine motor skills as its primary purpose: “building up the muscles in their hands so they can hold the pencil properly for writing.” Also mentioned were left/ right eye movement, line formation, colour recognition, multi-sensory learning and reinforcing previous learning. “I know it seems like a lot of colouring in” she said, “but it’s far more than just that.” And I really wanted to believe her.

IT IS MY belief that domination of colouring in is the warning sign that things are not right in the classrooms of Ireland. Children are being sent to school too young, and are having to be kept still and quiet and under control.

The Cambridge Primary Review, the biggest independent inquiry into primary education in four decades, based on 28 research surveys, 1,052 written submissions and 250 focus groups asserted that starting formal schooling at six or seven is optimal, where the age in Ireland is just four.

Classes are too large, and often with multiple classes in one room. My son’s teacher admitted that it was handy to leave one half of the class with their colouring to keep them quiet whilst she focuses on the other half of the class.

Others point to the metaphor of learning, says Dr Jools Gilson, “I genuinely don’t know . . . but I do know that being drilled tyrannically on staying inside the lines is a powerfully misguided way of developing pencil-holding control (there are other ways to do this), as well as an awful pedagogical metaphor.”

Another parent suggests it is because it appeals to girls. Certainly a number of reports have highlighted how education has become more “feminised” in recent years. And it is the case that the children that I know who react most strongly against the deluge of colouring in are all boys.

Is colouring homework a matter of demonstrating that we are doing something of value at school? It produces tidy, uniform, easy to assess finished products. Says teacher in Limerick: “Children are assigned colouring as ‘busy work’ and as an entry into the world of conformity.”

Prof Yvonne Siu-Runyan, Professor Emerita, University of Northern Colorado, a teacher of over forty years experience, says, “there is no research that says kids should colour a picture provided and make sure they are in the lines. Perhaps, the teacher is trying to develop coordination. But, there are sure better ways to do this than giving your child a worksheet with a picture to colour.”

The Department for Education were unwilling to comment on this matter, nor were the textbook publishers, however, Arlene Forster, Director of Curriculum and Assessment at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment said that, “In terms of textbooks, the NCCA provides advice to publishers, and schools choose the resources they use.”

This smacks of passing the buck. Because it is schools and not individual teachers that require parents to buy the books. They are not then going to not use them when parents have invested in them. Publishers are always going to be in the business of pushing workbooks as it makes money for them. The Government isn’t forcing schools to use workbooks. But teachers are overstretched, and creating exciting teaching resources requires more time, creativity and dedication.

As a teacher myself, this is what I signed up for, I feel it is a dreadful waste of precious resources to sit four-year-olds in a class room for five hours a day when they would learn more, and better by learning actively, as any nursery or pre-school teacher worth their salt can show you in her classroom.

The roundabout of finger pointing has to stop somewhere in this ‘death by workbook’ saga. There is no proof as to the educational worth or benefit of colouring in endless workbooks. So it is up to parents to make their voices heard if they feel it is an issue.

If you are concerned about the amount of colouring workbooks your child uses, here are some suggestions from Prof Siu-Runyan, about what you can do to investigate the situation.

1. Spend some extended time in your child’s classroom if you can. Maybe you can ask the teacher if you can help in your son’s classroom. I find that spending time in the classroom observing what goes on is the best things you can do to learn about what is going on?

2. Talk to the teacher, ask about why all the colouring books.

3. Discuss what else could be done instead? Making their own drawings or models, looking at books, Lego, doing puzzles, playing outside, learning through movement etc.

A short version of this appears in Modern Mum magazine, Summer 2011.

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  1. Kym

    Hello, I am a college student training to become a primary school teacher. At present, I am carrying out research into this area, the area of teachers insisting on the benefits of children colouring and staying within the lines of pre-designed pictures in the early childhood years. I am interested in how this affects the creativity in children in later years.

    I read your article and I think it’s fantastic, it is evident you have done in-depth research on this topic and feel very passionate about it.

    I write this to you, the author of this article, because I would love to know where you got your information and some sources I could look into to help me in my own research. I think this over-load of colouring in is not only an enormous waste of time but a hindrance to children’s learning – if children are told their picture is not good enough because it was too ‘messy’ then what effect might this have on the child’s approach to learning and creativity in the long run? That is it not okay to make ‘mistakes’?

    I’d be intrigued to find out more about this topic. Any help you could give me I would be massively grateful for.

    • lucyhpearce

      Hi Kym,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid it was 4 years ago that I wrote the post, and I can’t remember refs right now that weren’t mentioned – I interviewed a number of professors of education.

    • Mary

      Love, would love to read your paper when published on the ‘colouring’ issue as it is a bone of contention in our house every evening. I don’t believe in colouring for homework personally, I believe the children do enough of it without bringing it home to cause tension between parent n child!

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