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. 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
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. 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!
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.