Sometimes the most unlikely things can cause controversy.
Take coloring books. What could possibly be more benign? They have kept countless kids occupied and happy for countless hours over many generations. What is not to love?
And yet, there are those who disagree. Some say that coloring books hamper children's artistic creativity. Trying to color within the lines prevents kids from experimenting with colors, materials, texture, and shape.
Others see a coloring book as so much busy work—something that's effective in keeping kids quiet in restaurants, but doesn't contribute to learning.
But like so many disagreements over childrearing and early education, this one shifts when you think about it from a developmental perspective. It's true that young children need plenty of opportunity for open-ended play with crayons, paints, clay, and collage. Given that chance, they will produce beautifully spontaneous pictures and benefit enormously from the process.
At a certain point, however, around the age of three or four, kids who have had plenty of practice with their crayons will attempt representational drawing of their own accord. They usually begin with faces, and then move on to what the experts call "tadpole" people with big heads and small, elongated bodies. (Be sure to save these early portraits!) Children this age may also become interested in writing the letters of their own names, though not always in order, mind you.
It's around this same time that preschoolers can start to benefit from some time with coloring books. They are already making big efforts to control the way they move their crayon or pencil over the page. Trying to stay within the lines of a coloring picture is another expression of the same learning impulse. And it is this sort of practice that will ease way for young kids to learn how to write their letters and numbers.
This is not to say that preschool kids should be moving away from open-ended, free time with art materials. They still need plenty of room to express their creative impulses—that much has not changed one bit. But adding in coloring books, dot-to-dot and maze workbooks, and even practice handwriting books offers young children a new way to develop the fine motor skills that become so important in kindergarten and beyond. And best of all, they really enjoy coloring trucks and dinosaurs, fairies and princesses and everything in between. Some coloring books even manage to straddle the line between prompting creativity and encouraging precision: Taro Gomi's Scribbles, Doodles and Squiggles do this brilliantly.
So let's take that silly controversy and have it both ways, shall we?