As 4-year-old Darla takes the last sip from her favorite clear blue cup, she suddenly discovers that she can see through the bottom. "Mom, everything looks different!" she exclaims, as she watches the yellow cheese on her plate turn green and the red tomato turn purple through the cup. After eating, she runs off, using her cup as a color viewer to examine her world from a blue perspective.
Darla is discovering the magic of color. She is noticing that two colors mix to make a new one — an essential concept to her understanding of color — and she's experiencing the wonder of being the one to make it happen! Color is one of the first things children use to make distinctions between things they see, and color words are some of the first words they use to describe what they see. Young children take great pride in pointing out a red leaf and explaining that it is different from a yellow leaf. They also use color as a means to organize their world. When playing with blocks, some children might sort the blocks into piles by color and say, "Look what I did!" This is science and language learning at its hands-on best.
Your child is growing up in a world filled with many shades and hues. By focusing on the colors around her as you engage in everyday activities — going to the grocery store, playing with clay, drawing with crayons — you can help your child learn how to use color as a means for learning in the areas of language, math, science, and art. All the basic skills of vocabulary, description, sorting, matching, observing, and experimenting are inherent to color learning. You can turn your home into an exciting color-learning lab at any time by trying the following simple activities with materials you probably already have on hand:
Name that color. It is important for your child to notice and begin to name the colors around him, starting with the colors he wears, and expanding to the colors around your home and outdoors. Whenever you are taking a walk or a drive, point out the colors you see, and describe and match them. You might say, "I see a bright yellow flower that is the same color as the center of the traffic light. Can you find it? What else can you find that is yellow? Do you see someone wearing a light yellow shirt?"
Create a daring dough ball. Perhaps the best way for your child to see how colors blend and change is to use two lumps of play dough in primary colors and ask her to squeeze them together into one ball. At first the two colors will be distinct within the ball. But the more your child squeezes and mushes the dough, the more the colors will blend. There will almost certainly be an "aha" moment when your child sees a third color emerge. If she keeps working the dough, eventually it will all take on the new color. This activity allows your child to observe the process of change in action over a longer period of time than with paint or food color.
Mix and match paints. Any kind of nontoxic paint can work for color mixing, but each type has its own texture and hue. The fluid nature of watercolors allows for quick mixing and gives a translucent look to your creations. Try painting with watercolors on textured papers, such as paper towels, blotter paper, or even newspaper. The colors will soak and blend into the papers, creating a see-through look. Tempera or washable paints are more opaque and produce deeper and truer colors when mixed together. They work well on any kind of paper and are particularly fun to paint on unusual surfaces, such as egg cartons, wallpaper samples, freezer paper, and paper tubes and plates. The trick with the shinier surfaces is to add just three drops of liquid dish soap or white glue to the paint, thus creating a stickier paint.
Experiment with food coloring. For a delicious lesson in color, simply add a few drops of food coloring to small cups of vanilla pudding. Invite your child to finger paint with it — using clean hands — in a tray.
Create rainbow ice. Freeze a block of ice in an empty juice or milk carton. Place the ice block in a baking pan, and create a mixture of a half cup of water, three tablespoons of salt, and ten drops of food coloring for each of the three primary colors. Ask your child to predict what he thinks will happen. Invite him to spoon the color solution onto different spots on the top of the ice block. Watch and wait! As the salt melts the ice, the food coloring slips down through the cracks; where the colors meet, they mix and change into an icy work of art.
Mix mediums. Combine crayons and watercolors. Have your child draw with crayons on a piece of sturdy textured paper. Encourage her to press hard to make dark crayon lines. Then give her some watercolors to paint over the picture. The watercolors will not change the color of the crayon marks, but they will change the color of the paper.
Make a sun catcher. Show your child how to tear small (but not tiny) pieces of tissue paper for gluing onto a clear plastic lid (such as from a deli container or coffee can). Have him spread white glue over the entire lid, using a cotton swab or a small brush. Then show him how to place the pieces of paper on the lid, overlapping the colors to create a mosaic effect. Punch a hole in the lid with a hole punch, string with yarn or cord, and hang it in the window. What colors did you make?
Hint: As you know, if you mix every color, you get mud. When introducing color mixing to your child, it's helpful to provide pairs of primary colors, such as blue and yellow, red and yellow, or red and blue, instead of many different colors. This lets your child see how true colors can be made. Eventually, you can add white to introduce pastel shades. And then purposefully explore "making mud" with all the colors.