Step 1: Coloring outside and beyond the lines

Do coloring books stifle creativity? Or do coloring books encourage creativity? Some people believe coloring books are good because they provide children with an opportunity to practice creative skills (i.e. painting) and help children learn elements from the world. However researchers argue that coloring books can actually hurt the development of creative thinking. I agree with the latter view mostly, because coloring books provide little room for expression. Outlines mark clear boundaries that, sometimes teachers, make sure they aren’t broken. While it could be argued that children are free to choose any color they want, more often than not, they are slowly taught that in “reality” the sky isn’t green, it is blue. And, therefore, blue is the right way.

In an unpublished paper, written by Viktor Lowenfeld in 1960, when he was head of the Department of Art Education at Pennsylvania State University, the use of coloring books is described as hurting creativity because “filling in fixed outlines strangles the creative use of crayons and paint (…) The drawings themselves impose on your child adult stereotypes of horses, dogs, people and houses.” In other words, these types of books show children the right shape and characteristics of something. By doing this, children end up not using their imagination and not expressing their own individual and unique idea of how something looks like. To some extent, implicitly, they encourage conformity and to follow the rules.

Lowenfeld added that “this inhibition and rigidity carries over to all of your child’s activities”. Consequently, many children grow up unwilling to “color outside the lines”. As adults, this takes many forms: inability to come up with novel ideas or taking risks, fear of breaking the rules or thinking different from others, judging ideas or things that are different from the norm, etc.

Of course, the use of coloring books at an early age is not the only factor determining people’s level of creativity. Environment is another key determinant factor. But I do believe that anything we experience early on similar to coloring inside the lines can have an impact on how we see things later on in life.

As a little experiment, I wanted to test the following hypothesis: what is the effect of coloring books among college students in terms of their creativity? So, for the first class of the creativity seminar I’m teaching this semester, Princeton Students’ first day of class activity was to color these templates (from here and here):


Results were super interesting. The initial reaction was of surprise and laughs. Do we just have to color this? Any way we want? Most of the students dutifully colored strawberries red and leaves green. Some painted outside the lines, but only a few decided to radically break the boundaries and let their imagination flow:


Each student was given one template, and they had 10 minutes to color it using pencils or markers.

Equally interesting was the discussion that followed after the activity, as it revealed key dimensions and barriers involved in creative thinking:

  • Ambiguous tasks: Some students feel uncomfortable dealing with open-ended or ambiguous tasks with no right or wrong answers. In some cases, this can lead to not doing anything or completing the tasks.
  • Conformity vs Taking risks: Some of the students expressed an internal battle they faced between knowing that because this was a “creativity” class, they were expected to do something “crazy”, but deciding to stay true to what they thought they would have done if having to complete the activity in another context.
  • Creativity baseline. Other students decided to use this exercise as a measurement of where their creativity was on class 1, and where they wanted to get at the end of the semester.
  • Cultural blocks & Skepticism. A few challenged the activity and thought it wasn’t what they would have expected to do in a Princeton class. These students were among those using “real” colors.
  • Mental blocks. And a few described the activity as “silly”.
  • Fun & Playful. Some students did find the activity relaxing. They expressed that they haven’t done something like this since they were much younger, and enjoyed the freedom.

Overall, this simple activity showed how engrained seems to be in many college students the effects of following the “rules”. This manifested in various ways from expressing that as college students they shouldn’t be doing such activity to not even thinking of coloring a strawberry with a different color than red. The activity was also an excellent way to exemplify classic mental blocks like “Playing is frivolous” or “That’s not logical” (von Oech, 2008). Finally, this help understand how hard creative thinking can be, even for 18-year olds.

–  Lowenfeld, V. (1960) Creativity education’s stepchild. In: A source book for creative thinking, Edited by Parnes, S. and Harding, H.
– von Oech, R. (2008) A Whack on the side of the head. Grand Central Publishing; Anniversary.


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