A famous Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, was upset. He marched into the center for scientific research in education and declared, "Children are visually illiterate!" The education researchers worked with him to further develop and test a program he created to teach visual literacy based on a theory of shapes and how they combine to make everything from alphabetic letters to great art.

Although the Agam Program is long and involved, versions of the activities can be adapted for your work with young children. What follows are several types of activities that can be repeated with different shapes.

Building Knowledge of Shapes

Begin by helping children build a basic knowledge of shapes. Point out all the circles around you, such as plates or the tops of cans. Naming the shapes children see in their environment is important.

Extend these experiences by running your finger around the objects while you say "circle," and talk about how it keeps curving. Ask children to do the same. When you are talking about triangles, talk about the straight sides and the sharp corners.

Analyzing Shapes

Next, involve children in analyzing objects and pictures in their environment by identifying their basic shapes. For example, they might:

  • Find circles in picture books
  • Go on a "shape hunt" and find all the rectangles in the classroom
  • Look for shapes such as triangles or squares that you have hidden all around a room

When you are teaching about shapes that are not as numerous in most environments, such as triangles or rhombuses (diamonds), you can make copies out of cardboard or construction paper. (Keep these available for later activities.) Make sure you make different shapes and sizes. Children learn limited ideas about shapes unless we show them a variety of examples.

Supporting Visual Memory

The next step is to build children's visual memory of pictures and shapes. For example, show a child a very simple picture, such as a line drawing, for only two or three seconds. Then cover it and ask the child to describe it. Move to more complicated pictures as the child's ability increases.

Continue to play this "flash" game with variations. For example, show a child one of three drawings that are very simple for two seconds. Then mix all three up and let the child find the one that you showed. Later, when you have worked with several shapes, and combinations of shapes, this can be fun and challenging: the child might have to remember if she saw a triangle inside a circle or a circle inside a triangle.

Combining Shapes

As soon as you have worked with several shapes, combine these shapes in your activities. For example, after you have studied horizontal and vertical lines, examine pictures with children, such as city scenes, and invite them to find all the horizontal and vertical lines they can. Talk about the vertical and horizontal lines in your classroom, and how they combine to make different shapes and objects.

Reproducing Shapes and Combinations of Shapes

After building children's knowledge of shapes and combinations of shapes, encourage them to reproduce them. For example, show a child a square you made with blocks or pipe cleaners. Then, challenge the child to copy the shape.

Creating with Shapes

Children should use the shapes you are working with to make their own designs and pictures. Soon after reproducing shapes, encourage children to invent their own ways of using the shape to make designs with pipe cleaners, buildings with blocks, and pictures with crayons.

Supply children with a combination of different materials, such as small blocks, pipe cleaners, and paint. Remind children of the shapes you have explored. Then, give them the opportunity to use the materials to create the shapes in their own ways. Different materials encourage children to think about the shape in different ways. To make a square, you have to choose the correct number of blocks (four equal lengths). Using pipe cleaners, you have to bend them "just right" to make the square corners.

Why are we so confident that children will benefit from these activities in so many ways? Along with the Agam developers, we conducted extensive research on the program. Children showed gains in geometric and spatial skills. They showed pronounced benefits in math and writing readiness. They even increased their IQ scores. Children are better prepared for school-and life-when they can think about and use the tools of basic geometric ideas.