early childhood · illustrations · illustrators

Let Them Color, Because…

When we see kids coloring during writing workshop, an internal alarm may ring: They are wasting precious minutes of writing! We tend to think of writing as the act of adding words to paper, and when we do not see that happening, we assume kids are off-task.

On the contrary, coloring puts many skills to work that are essential for writing (and are not limited to primary grades!). Coloring promotes:

  • Better handwriting. Handwriting requires dexterity (coordination of small muscles, in movements), hand strength, and attention to detail — each of which is developed while coloring.
  • Spatial awareness. Coloring helps children attend to boundaries, use margins on a page, learn about lines and shapes, as well as organize drawings within a given space.
  • Improved focus and hand-eye coordination. The physical task of holding crayons, in addition to selecting and implementing colors all contribute to these skills, which are fundamental for writing.

Adult coloring books are not just a fad. A new study by a researcher at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has revealed that coloring can help to improve mood, reduce stress and boost creativity. Researchers also found that after coloring, participants of the study showed higher levels of mindfulness (attending to what is presently happening) and flow (being ‘in the zone’).

The study also revealed that, while coloring, participants were more calm and had better visual attention (our brain’s ability to focus on one thing, sustain attention, and filter out distractions).

Coloring is also a therapeutic means for self-expression. Children (and adults) who color can visually process feelings, frustrations, and emotions. This is especially important when verbal expression of emotions is difficult.

When thinking about the physical and mental stressors that children of all ages experience in a day (within and outside of school), having opportunities to color can promote wellbeing.

We all know the kids who appear before us (five minutes into writing) and proclaim, book in their hands, “I’m done!”

What we teach, what we hope happens, is that writers will reread, add more detail, or begin a new book. However, some writers run out of physical and mental fuel for writing more quickly than others. Rather than force them to comply (which may be met with refusal to work, disengagement, or a lack of effort–to name a few), we can offer more inclusive options for what writers can do after finishing a book. One popular option is coloring in the pictures.

The act of coloring inside lines requires concentration, so although students feel like they are getting a break, they are actually strengthening their stamina for working on a task.

More options for book-finishers include:

  • Reading the finished book to a friend, another teacher, or recording it on a device to share with their family.
  • Working on a an independent writing project or journaling with choice of topic and genre.
  • Writing with a friend who has also finished a book.
  • Asking peers if they need help with ideas, tips, or spelling/editing.

Choices help students feel in control and stay productively engaged alongside their peers. It also helps to maximize independent time for writers who have longer stamina and allows us to support more students.

Children have two jobs as they write: author and illustrator. When thinking about books in the world, both are of equal importance to the overall impact and success once published.

Because of academic standards and pressures, we tend to focus more on the text in our instruction and assessments. However, organization, readability, craft, and elaboration all apply to pictures as well — and should not be forgotten about during genre studies. As readers, we teach children to pay close attention to these details. Even color choice is worth noting, as it provides more information in nonfiction texts and can be tied to mood and theme in fiction texts. Pictures are a tool for meaning-making, in both reading and writing.

Though some writers begin with pictures, and others begin with words (and should be offered that choice), both need to be complete before an illustrator can add color. Having to have pictures and words complete across all pages is a great motivation for students who are eager to reach for coloring tools. Adding color to a finished book makes it feel complete and published, resulting in confidence and pride.

I recently wrote a book to share with my class about living in Mexico during a study abroad. I closed my eyes to remember. In my mind, I saw:

The pastel-blue painted sky, spotted with white, billowy clouds. The mountain-bordered horizon, light brown in the distance. The rainbow streets, decorated with papel picado. The orange and white tiles of our casita amongst the green forest and rio below. The white hair of abuela, knotted in a bun above her head. Norma’s cheeks as she smiled, her caramel skin flushed pink. Toji’s brown and gold-tipped tail, wagging back and forth as I unlocked the gate.

To write about Mexico without color would be to write about Mexico without life. Colors are preserved in our memory, along with other senses. A writer’s job is to bring a reader in — in on the smells, the sounds, the sights, the feelings — and they do that through words and colors.

Color is also a part of human identity, from the colors we are born with, to the colors we choose. When we welcome and encourage students to add color when they draw themselves and their world, it gives them freedom they deserve: to express who they are.

Our world is in color.

Our culture is in color.

Our home is in color.

We feel in color.

We are in color.

Writing brings life and life is in color. Let writers color.

9 thoughts on “Let Them Color, Because…

  1. A couple years ago one of my students gave a speech on coloring as a stress reducer. I often think about the beauty of illuminated manuscripts and how much we can learn from the past about the value of art to writing. Then I wonder how we lost our way. I’m sure in part it has something to do w/ money and publishing costs.

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    1. Wow, I would have loved to hear that speech. I agree, the value of art, not just as a companion to writing, has diminished in many schools. Grateful to still have enrichment programs in my school when I read about so many that have it cut.


  2. I have always believed in the power of coloring and drawing. In my work with visual literacy at the Yale Center for British Arts, I saw first hand how ideas are found through coloring, drawing, observing. Without ideas, a writer has nothing. I believe that drawing and coloring can play a vital role in our workshops for some if not all writers. Thank you so much for sharing this blog post, Kelsey!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I needed to read this post. One, I needed permission for myself to color. I have thought that it was a brainless activity. Your post helps me see all the positive aspects. Secondly, I need this for my students. I teach gifted kids and we often do a timed writing activity. Drawing a picture is allowed within that time frame and often, my students will say they need more time to finish their picture. Now I see the value of giving them that time. Thanks!


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