It seems to happen overnight: Your child goes off to preschool, a master of scribbling. Then, she hands you a piece of artwork that shows she’s tried to color inside the lines for the first time. It’s a big moment — and you deserve to do your proud parent dance as you tape that page to the fridge.
“That switch in coloring skills is a milestone for children because it shows that their motor skills and cognitive skills are developing,” says Rachel Annunziato, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York. “I have a progression of artwork from my 7-year-old twins on my wall, from scribbled pictures leading up to the intricate pictures they have been making lately.” (Shop coloring books for all ages on The Scholastic Store.)
It’s one of many developmental milestones children tend to reach between three to five years of age, but experts advise against explicitly asking children to color within the lines, which could make the activity feel tedious. If your preschooler is still scribbling, not to worry! Every child develops specific skills at different times. (If she can’t color inside the lines once she enters first grade, talk to her teacher and pediatrician to determine if a vision test or other assessment is needed.)
Here’s the fascinating developmental science happening behind the coloring pages your child brings home, and how to use a coloring book as one of many preschool activities to set your little artist up for success.
Your child is developing fine motor skills.
Flashback to Anatomy 101: Gross motor skills refer to large muscle movements, like when your child uses his arm to drag a crayon across paper (not when he sticks the crayon in his nose). Fine motor skills refer to his smaller muscle movements, like bending the wrist and fingers.
“When children are really young, they scribble because they’re just using the movement of their arm and holding the crayon in their fist,” says Denise Bodman, Ph.D., a principal lecturer in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. “As their fine motor skills develop, they start using their fingers and wrist to move the crayon. That eventually leads to basic writing skills.”
Experts consider preschool age to be the most important time for motor skill development. Fine motor skills also allow your child to do everyday tasks like threading beads, buttoning a shirt, and using thinner tools like pencils. In other words? Those little movements are a big deal!
Book pick: Color with Clifford the Big Red Dog: Activities for Building Fine–Motor Skills and Color Recognition. This fun-filled book is designed to strengthen your child’s fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, plus his matching, counting, and tracing abilities — all important for early literacy. Bonus: It’s made extra fun with Clifford, your child’s favorite big red dog.
They’re honing in on their spatial abilities.
When your child considers boundaries on a page, it not only saves your kitchen table, but it also shows she is starting to develop spatial skills, the ability to understand relationships between different shapes and objects. “As children become aware of boundaries, they start thinking and planning around them,” says Bodman. Soon, she may color with an understanding of spatial vocabulary such as “above,” “below,” and “between.”
Spatial skills are involved in everything from getting orientated in a new environment (say, if your child is learning her way around a new classroom) to packing a suitcase. Research has also linked spatial abilities with creativity, math skills, and success in STEM fields — think engineering, meteorology, or architecture.
Book pick: BOOST Fun with Opposites Coloring Book. In this activity book, 45 exciting images teach your child opposites such as “sweet and sour,” “hot and cold,” and even spatial vocabulary such as “up and down” or “high and low.” It’s a staple for learning new words and concepts at home!
They’re experimenting, and learning as a result.
Some experiences — like when your child colors blue over yellow, or tries to correct a crayon stroke that darted outside of the line — may seem tiny, but can translate to valuable skills later on. “When children start coloring inside the lines, they’re learning about cause and effect,” says Bodman. “They’re finding out what happens if they move their hand one way, draw with a certain tool, or mix colors together.”
This type of trial and error is a natural part of learning for your preschooler. In fact, research shows children regularly and spontaneously invent experiments when they play. As tempting as it is to show him how to stay inside the lines or combine colors (you’re just trying to help, after all!), avoid correcting him, and simply express your appreciation for the effort. By practicing and experimenting on his own, he’s mastering skills that may make learning certain concepts in school easier later on, says Annunziato.
Book pick: Going Camping Coloring Book. Support your child’s adventurous spirit by allowing him to experiment with coloring these 26 exciting scenes! They depict a family’s equally adventurous journey camping out, with activities ranging from setting up a tent to looking for firewood.
They’re exploring new topics.
Coloring books that teach certain subjects through illustrations can be an engaging (and playful!) way for your child to learn. But there’s just one caveat: “The key is to make it interactive,” says Bodman. Sit down with your child and have a fun conversation about what she’s coloring. If she has a coloring book about fire safety, point out how interesting it is that firefighters live in a firehouse or how quickly they answer a 911 call.
“I’ve done this as both a mom and a psychologist,” adds Annunziato. “If your child doesn’t know something about the topic, then you can share more about it. This way, kids will associate learning with having fun and spending extra time with you.”
Book pick: BOOST Safety First Coloring Book. Safety has never been so colorful! Your child will learn 27 important tips such as always crossing at crosswalks and never talking to strangers as they fill each page with their own creative touch.
They’re tapping into self-control (and self-confidence).
Coloring inside the lines requires the ability to plan, organize, and stay within a framework without getting distracted, says Kimberly Williams, Psy.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist based in Long Island and Brooklyn, NY. “The progression from scribbling to coloring inside the lines represents structure and rule following, and is one of the first markers that a child is learning in an academic setting,” she adds.
This level of focus and concentration will help your child complete many other tasks and preschool activities — and as a result, can foster his confidence.
Book pick: How to Care for Your Dog: A Color and Learn Guide for Kids. Delight your dog lover with these 30 easy-to-color illustrations that offer bite-sized tips on active care for a canine. Perfect for the little artist who's also begging for a pet—and who's ready to take on the confidence-boosting responsibilities of feeding, grooming, and training.
They may be more socially aware.
Not only can coloring books contribute to your child’s social development by showing interactions between illustrated characters, but when your child starts drawing inside the lines, it may show that she’s becoming socially cognizant, too. In class or elsewhere, children eventually catch on to the fact that lines are meant to be drawn in, and they may try to stay within them to model after other children or even to make you happy.
“They might see other kids coloring in the lines and want to learn how to as well, or they may start to recognize that they’re pleasing you and want to earn praise with their pictures,” says Annunziato. “At that point, it’s of course important for us parents to convey that we’re happy with anything they give us, and it doesn’t have to be a beautifully-colored picture for us to enjoy it.”
Book pick: BOOST Community Helpers Coloring Book. Offer a lesson in civics with your pre-reader with the illustrations that highlight the various people in the neighborhood, such as bus drivers, librarians, firefighters, police officers, and more.