Learning colors is a process for toddlers. Think about it: They understand the word ball when you say, “Look at that red ball next to Daddy!” But even with a few contextual clues, what exactly does the word red mean?
That’s not to say you can’t brighten your tot’s day by talking about color until his ability to master it is solid. You can. It will all make sense in time. Meanwhile, follow your child’s lead, go with his interests, manage your expectations, and have fun with these ideas.
1. Read and chatter. Reading is one of the best ways to stimulate your child’s cognition, creativity, color sense, and curiosity. So, start early and read often. Look for large, colorful, age-appropriate books—the toddler version of a real page-turner, with little or no text, but lots of clear, relatable pictures (a red ball, a green leaf, a blue sky). Make reading conversational and interactive, even if your tot isn’t talking. Just ask, and then answer, your own questions. Wonder out loud, “Where’s the blue ball?” Then look at the page and say, “Oh, there it is. Let’s point to it together!” Eventually, explore classics that focus on specific colors. It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw is great for teaching the color white; Ten Apples Up on Top! by Theo. LeSieg works for red; and Pumpkin, Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington can rev up interest in orange.
2. Recite an ode to color. Kids love rhymes. So, give your cutie a thrill and reinforce learning with sweet and silly songs and poems that link colors to familiar objects—a red fire truck, a yellow sun, purple grapes. Ad-lib a verse of your own or check out this typically colorful rhyme from writer Jean Warren:
Let’s make pancakes, yum, yum, yum
And drop on blueberries, one by one.
Turn the pancakes, now they’re done.
Blueberry pancakes, let’s have some!
3. Color coordinate the bath. Kick an evening soak up a notch by turning a routine bath into a riot of color: Simply dump ice cubes made with water tinted with a teensy drop of food dye into a tub of warm water and let your toddler try to catch them. Yes, it’s a potential mess, but kids find learning this way endlessly fascinating. Reinforce the message by tossing in bath-safe toys in the same color.
4. ID colors in nature. Decorate a trike, wagon, or stroller with store-bought or DIY streamers or just dress your toddler in bright colors. Then, head outdoors and point out all the bright colors around you. (This is a sensory experience, not a quiz, so resist the urge to pepper the outing with questions.) Instead, take along a book, stop for a while, and share it. Show your child how words in print, colors, and things in nature are all related (green grass, a yellow flower, a white butterfly).
5. Use food as a tool for learning. Experiencing color in a variety of ways helps kids master the concept. Plus, the more opportunities you give little ones to do so through all their senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch), makes colors easier to remember. Try these ideas (without quizzing):
- Host an apple fest at home. Cut up red and green apples and serve them. Or use red and green grapes (cut in half, as whole ones are a choking hazard). It is often easier for kids to understand color when you let them compare like objects in different colors.
- Nominate a food color of the week. Then, stock up on a variety of foods in that color. (Colorful drinks work, too.) On a yellow week, serve eggs; on a green week, green beans; on a brown week, burgers and chocolate milk.
- Pretty-up rice and pasta. Cook up and serve giggle-worthy side dishes tinted in primary colors (buy a box of tri-colored pasta or color the sides yourself). Carry out the theme when you set the table: use plates, napkins, and cups to match whatever you happen to be serving.