As a little girl, I loved admiring the pages of a brand new coloring book. Perhaps the only thing better was a box of new crayons, their tips untarnished by an interaction with paper. Each color possessed a promise and a chance to help create something exceptional that was refrigerator-, bedroom wall- or parent’s desk-worthy.
Each time I received a coloring book I flipped through the pages and imagined one day finishing it in its entirety — coloring every single page leaving me with a beautiful book, even prettier than the ones I circled in preparation for the Scholastic Book Fair. Yes, it would be that good.
Only it never happened that way. No matter what technique I tried, my coloring was never quite good enough, at least in my eyes. Whether it was coloring softly or outlining the images with a crayon, then coloring them in, I often gave up after accidently coloring outside the lines, finding my redemption in a new coloring book and a chance to start over.
For some reason, I was already striving for perfection – limiting myself to create in the context of the image that filled the pages in front of me.
Afternoons were spent coloring alongside my mother, often resulting in me ooh and ahhing over her beautifully colored images and tearing mine out of the book not to display, but to tuck away or toss. My mother always told me I was doing a wonderful job but little did I know it was my coloring skills that reminded her of how awesome it was to be my mom. When I flip back through my life story gazing at the images that make up my childhood I see glimpses of my parents marveling at my creations, not those stuck in the binding of a book, but the ones on paper. Blank paper (or notebook paper).
Years later and I still love opening up a box of new crayons, but more than that I love the endless possibilities that are before me and my kids because for the most part we’ve decided to ditch the coloring books. I realized that I will treasure a book of scribbles just as much, if not more than my once construed notion of perfection.
And while we do still have a few coloring books in our house, we also have a stack of crisp white paper and if we run out, my oldest raids the computer printer. I see them reaching for and requesting a piece of paper time and time again. The coloring books, not so much.
I’ve found that I’m also more likely to hand over a blank sheet of paper and a jar of crayons or colored pencils — even pens or water colors. Sometimes we take out glue sticks or washi tape or stickers but they choose how to use them. The notes section of church programs, the backs of flyers and even Post-Its are clean slates and thus, the new keepers of promise; a box of art supplies is a vehicle for the imagination to travel as far as it possibly can.
I find joy in seeing them create even if it means me cleaning crayon (thanks to my littlest) off the table later or peeling a sticker off my foot or the furniture. I find joy in seeing that something as simple as a blank piece of paper can be as fascinating as a new toy.
When my oldest was in daycare, the school that she went to didn’t give the kids coloring pages or do craft projects using precut pieces that the kids were to assemble after listening to a specific how to. Unlike elementary school, there were no instructions to follow. They just created. Now her baby sister goes there and for the most part they are still doing art the same way letting the artist decide what their masterpiece will look like.
To this day I have a box filled with her artwork. As for some of her creations, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what they are if not for the quotes her teachers wrote on the page. When she created them she knew and that’s what mattered. Those pictures remind me of the way children run wild and free … when we let them and their imaginations take them to the most magical places.
They symbolize the innate ability children have to simply create.
I’d like to think that this form of artistic expression plants a seed for thinking outside of the box and allowing your heart and mind to guide you rather than lines or a template. It embodies the freedom that childhood should be rooted in. A freedom to color and paint and draw in a way that speaks to you.
To be YOU.
A freedom that we somehow forfeit as we grow older.
“I made that,” says my toddler as we admire the artwork that adorns the hallway on the way to her classroom.
“Look what I made,” says my tween, holding up a drawing she made when she was done with homework.
“You made that?” I always ask them. I love to watch their face light up as they assure me that they did. I always tell them how much I love it but I almost always ask them if they love it. Because in the end that’s what matters.
It’s a gift to be able to create something that speaks to your heart and an added bonus when you learn that it speaks to someone else’s too.
By the time elementary school rolls around, many of our kids will be told how to do art. We parents will walk into the classroom and see 20+ tissue paper trees or hand print turkeys and if not for their name written in black marker on the bottom we wouldn’t have the slightest clue our kid made them.
One year, my daughter’s teacher drew a portion of her drawing in an effort to make it better. I don’t think she realized the message she was sending. In my daughter’s eyes, it was good until her teacher saw the need to make it better. For a period of time she would tear up her drawings declaring that she messed up and want to start over as she had gotten caught into thinking that her picture had to look a certain way to be beautiful but it didn’t. It just needed to be hers.
The day may come for many of our children when they will spend their school days and later in adulthood the hours 9 – 5 coloring and thinking inside the lines.
So when possible let them venture beyond them. And if they need lines, let them create their own.
I’m no Martha that’s for sure, but I still like a good craft kit or how to. That said, what I like most is seeing what happens when I give my girls a set of tools and forgo handing them a blueprint.