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Do you ever wonder why we put so much emphasis in the toddler and preschool years on teaching colors and shapes? I mean, why put so much focus on colors and shapes rather than letters and numbers?
In this post I explain why learning colors and shapes is so important for young children. I also share plenty of ideas for teaching children to recognize colors and shapes.
Colors and Shapes: Foundational Skills for Young Children
So let’s start by stating the fact that our world is literally made up of colors and shapes. That is what we see all around us!
A house has a different shape from a tree, which has a different shape from a person or a banana. And the cars, flowers, and street signs around us come in many different colors.
As it turns out, colors and shapes are a key way that we describe and categorize our world. Children will notice that a red flower is different from a yellow one, and that a round bread roll has a different shape than a square slice of bread.
Verbal communication: Teaching children about colors and shapes is a great way to give them some vocabulary for describing the world around them. This opens up new and exciting avenues for verbal communication.
Sorting and classifying: As children learn to identify colors and shapes, they can sort and classify objects around them based on these attributes.
Health and safety: Colors sometimes give us information about health and safety. For example, we use red in our culture to indicate ‘danger’ or ‘stop,’ such as with red stop lights and red stop signs. Colors can also tell us about our health. If a person’s skin has blue marks, it may mean they have suffered a bruise. If a person’s skin turns red, they may have spent too much time in the sun. And black marks on the wall could indicate the presence of an insect, a spider, or even mold.
Letters and numbers: The written symbols we use for letters and numbers are really just shapes. As children develop proficiency at learning shapes such as squares and circles, they are developing the classification and visual discrimination skills to distinguish between ‘k’ and ‘x’ or between ‘p’ and ‘g.’
Most children are unable to differentiate between different colors until at least 18 months of age, which is also about the same time that children start to notice differences and similarities between textures, sizes, and shapes. However, while children can start to differentiate between colors around 18 months, it can take until age 3 before children can fully understand the difference between colors and name them.
Although naming colors is second nature to most adults, it is actually a cognitively complex task for young children. This is in part because the range of hues that count as a particular color are not innate, nor are they universal among all cultures. In fact, different cultures and languages around the world vary in the number of distinct colors they recognize, from two colors to more than 20!
Teaching colors is best done through playful everyday life experiences. When developmentally ready, many children easily learn their colors as parents and caregivers point out color attributes of objects in children’s environment (e.g., “Throw me the green ball” or “Do you want the red shirt or the yellow shirt?”).
You might also ask your children to match objects by color. Or when doing artwork, make note of the colors the child has chosen to use or ask the child to name the colors in their drawing.
You might also go to the library and borrow books about colors to read to your child.
Here are some links to a variety of ideas for teaching children to identify colors:
- 6 activities for learning about colors
- Teaching colors through everyday play
- Mix it up! Book-based fun with color mixing activity
- Build a 3-D rainbow
- String a rainbow necklace
And for children who can identify the primary colors, these are some fun activities to teach color theory and color mixing:
- Intro to color theory for preschoolers
- Color mixing science with liquid watercolors
- Make your own markers: a practical color mixing lesson
- No mess color mixing activity with plastic bottles
- Color mixing rainbow challenge: Putting color theory into practice
It takes most children a few months longer to grasp the concept of shapes than to grasp the concept of color. However, by age 3 most children have developed an understanding of shape and can name several of the most common geometric shapes (e.g., circle, square, triangle).
When teaching shapes, start with the most common shapes (squares, triangles, circles, and rectangles) before introducing tricker shapes like diamonds/rhombuses, hexagons, and stars.
It is best if you can teach shapes in a organic ways. Point out that a tire is round like a circle, the television is shaped like a rectangle, and the slice of cheese your child is eating is shaped like a square.
Consider providing your child with toys that teach shapes through playful means.
Over time I have shared a number of activities that can be used to teach shapes. Most of these activities can be adapted to teach either basic shapes (e.g., circle, square, triangle) or more advanced shapes (e.g., ellipse, parallelogram, hexagon).
Here are some links to a variety of ideas for teaching children to identify shapes:
- Books about shapes
- Trace the shapes art project
- Magic disappearing shapes
- Making shapes on the geoboard
- Sand shapes art project
- How many ways to make a shape?
- Gross motor shapes activity
And here are some links to activities for teaching children to recognize 3-dimensional shapes:
- Identifying 3-D shapes by touch
- 3-D shapes graphing game
- Put the clothes on the shape
- Hands-on exploration with 3-D shapes
- Playful ways to learn about 3-D shapes