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Why Colors and Shapes Matter

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Have you ever wondered why most early childhood programs teach children their colors and shapes early in the year? Why not letters and numbers? Why not cats and dogs? It's because color and shape are two very noticeable attributes of the world around us. When you look out your window, you may not be saying it ... but your mind is noticing and identifying the green trees, brown rectangle buildings, square windows, and blue sky. Color and shape are ways children observe and categorize what they see. These very recognizable characteristics encourage children to define and organize the diverse world around them.

These first teachings in preschool and kindergarten are basics that your child needs to know before she learns the "other basics" of reading, writing, and math. Understanding color and shape is a tool for learning many skills in all curriculum areas, from math and science to language and reading. For example, when your child learns to discern the similarities and differences between colors and shapes, she is using the same skills she needs to recognize the differences between letters and numerals.

When young children are asked to mathematically sort objects (such as leaves, rocks, shells, or keys) they usually use the most obvious attributes of color and shape, plus size, to categorize the items. When your child plays, he uses sorting and classifying skills as he observes similarities and differences of color and shape, makes comparisons, and organizes this information into piles. This seemingly simple process (that we use every week when we sort the laundry or find things in the grocery aisles) is the foundation for living in a mathematical world. Sorting by color and shape prepares your child for the future application of these skills in making graphs or searching for a book at the library.

The Importance of Color
Color is one of the first ways your preschooler makes distinctions among things she sees; color words are some of the first words she uses to describe these things. You have probably heard the pride in your child's voice as she names the colors of the balloons at the store checkout, or her delight when she realizes that a banana and pear are different shades of yellow. Helping you fold the laundry, she may naturally start sorting the socks into piles of different colors while exclaiming, "Look what I did!" These are all perfect examples of how children (and adults!) use color as a means for defining and organizing the world.

But there is much more to your child's understanding of color than "knowing his colors." While it is important for him to know the names of the colors, it is just as important for him to know what to do with them. You can help by inviting him to notice many shades, hues, and tints. Make up names for these colors together, such as lemon yellow or apple red. You will be helping him use color as a means for creative thinking and language. Invite him to use descriptive language as he tells you how one green is different from another. One 4 year old I observed proudly said, "That green is dark like a Christmas tree and this one is light like celery!"

Introduce your child to the world of shades and hues by giving her some paint swatches to explore. She can sort them into different color piles, match similar colors, and create a sequence or "color train" of hues from light to dark. Bring out the glue stick and she can cut and paste the colors to make monochromatic collages of yellows, reds, blues, etc. Find more games and activities about color.

The Power of Shape
We all use shape as a way of identifying and organizing visual information. Very early, your child begins to make a connection between familiar objects and their shapes. Changes in these can be surprising. For example, at first he may not want to eat round waffles or square cookies. But once he experiences this new shape information (and finds out it is still delicious!), he can easily integrate the new shape into his pantheon of shape knowledge.

When your child explores different shapes, she is using one of the most basic educational processes: the observation of same and different. This concept provides her with a basic process that she will be able to use in observing, comparing and discussing all she sees and encounters.

Play shape-sorting games with simple household items. Put a collection of objects on the floor and invite your child to sort them into different piles — for round, square, flat, or rectangular items. Then ask him to go on a treasure hunt around the house to find one more thing that can go in each pile. You will be asking him to apply what he has learned in sorting the shapes to the greater world around him.

Take a shape walk around the neighborhood. You might want to focus on one shape at a time. This will help your child match the shape to objects in the environment, and to notice same and different. Give her a cardboard circle to carry as you go on your "circle walk." You can also take a shape walk looking for all shapes. Carry a clipboard and a piece of paper with the basic shapes drawn on it. Every time your child finds one of the shapes, she can draw a tally mark. Which shape did she find the most of? Find more shape and size activities.

Shapes are also symbols. Not surprisingly, the early recognition of shapes relates to your child's ability to read symbols otherwise know as letters. Capital letters are made mostly of circles (or parts of circles) and lines. The first step in understanding letters is the ability to know the difference between a circle and a square or rectangle. Provide your child with lots of paper and crayons to experiment with drawing lines and shapes. Don't worry if they are not perfect at first. It is most important for him to get the "feel" of the shapes in his hand before it is perfectly represented on paper. This shape drawing will naturally lead to writing letters. Take the letters of his name and help him see the shapes inherent in them.

Of course, where would the world of art be with out color and shape? Explore your favorite picture books together with an eye for color and shape. Great authors to explore include Leo Lionni and Eric Carle. Help your child see the way the artist has used colors and shapes to create. Bring out the paper and paints (or markers) and encourage her to create her own art in the style of her favorite illustrator!

About the Author

Ellen Booth Church is a former professor of early childhood, a current educational consultant, keynote speaker, and author.


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