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  • We're Teaching Colors the Wrong Way! Here's How We Should Do It

    There's a science to teaching colors to toddlers that make it easier to learn.
    by Rachel Perez .
We're Teaching Colors the Wrong Way! Here's How We Should Do It
PHOTO BY iStock
  • Teaching your little one about colors should be easier compared to learning numbers and letters, right? Think again.

    Almost all parents would have introduced color this way: you point to an object and say "Look, baby, blue ball." And that's fine. But would he recognize blue when he sees it the next time?

    Your little one can recognize and maybe even differentiate colors at around 18 months. It's about the same time in his cognitive development that he notices different shapes, textures, and sizes. As we always remind parents, however, there are 2- to 3-year-old kids who can already identify colors (according to their parents) while others will have difficulty doing so until they're already age 6. Some can't tell the difference between blue and violet — or even between pink and blue! Other kids have an easy time identifying colors of an object but not the same color in other things.

    It doesn't mean though your child has a milestone delay. The truth is it just takes some time for kids to learn colors. So, Melody Dye, a former academic researcher in cognitive science, went searching for a possible explanation.

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    At the Cognition, Language & Learning Lab at Stanford University eight years ago, Dye worked with Professor Michael Ramscar to introduce colors to a dozen of 2-year-olds. The study's first group heard, "This is a blue crayon." The other group heard, "This crayon is green."

    Both groups were shown the same visuals, but the kids who heard the latter phrase when referring to colors got significantly improved scores. 

    "The learning problem consists in not only learning a word to color mapping, but also in learning the peculiar color 'maps' your language uses in the first place," Dye explained in Scientific American.

    A spectrum of colors surrounds us, and it's harder to differentiate reds from oranges than, say, a dog from a cat. That's where the first confusion lies. Start with four basic colors first: red, blue, green, yellow. You can add more colors when your little one has mastered these four colors. Don't jump to the different shades of the color, too, at this age.

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    The words we use to introduce and point out colors to your little one is also a factor."We like to use color words 'prenominally,' meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like 'the red balloon,' instead of using the postnominal construction, 'the balloon is red,'" Dye shared.

    Why does the placement of words matter? Kids — or us folks, for that matter — use their visual senses when trying to understand and make sense of words they hear in conversations. In the example above, the focus is on the balloon first that happens to be in red.

    "When you stick the noun before the color word, you can successfully narrow their focus to whatever it is you’re talking about before you hit them with the color," Dye explained.

    Plus, the prenominal way can be limiting for toddlers. "If you say 'red balloon,' kids might pick up that red is a proper name of the balloon and would have a difficult time seeing other objects of the same color," the researcher added. In short, he can recognize red in a ball correctly but not a red scarf.

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    "Using color words after nouns should make colors far easier to learn and should make kids far faster at learning them," Dye suggests.

    Before you name colors, you can first let your child match colors or group blocks in the same color. It's when you start pointing out the colors of objects and naming colors — don't forget how you word your sentences. Remember, though, that little kids learn best through play and consistency is crucial in learning pattern.

    To summarize, enjoy and have fun when you're teaching colors to your tots, but don't forget to also put nouns first before colors. 

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