- While recognising colors starts around 18 months, 3 years is the age when kids really do start to learn colors
- Learning colors is complex because they are not universally defined
- Saying “the ball is yellow” is more helpful than saying “the yellow ball” when teaching colors to kids
It’s exciting to see our little ones learning new things. And one of the things we’re often eager for them to learn is colors. Colors might seem like they should be easy to grasp - after all, we see them everywhere in everything. But, when do kids actually learn colors?
It’s not quite as easy as you’d think. Although kids can developmentally grasp the idea of colors as early as 18 months old, they may not be able to learn colors until 3 years of age.
Why learning colors is complex
So far in this article we’ve been saying “learning colors”. That’s because being able to recognise and name colors is not an innate ability. Like many things in life, it’s a skill that needs to be developed.
At 18 months kids can developmentally grasp the idea of colors . That is they can “recognise” them. However, correctly identifying and naming colors may take much longer. In fact, for most kids, the age of 3 is when they can correctly identify a color .
Learning colors is a complex task because of the range of hues they come in, some of which seem to cross over, blurring the lines of whether you might call it green or blue.
The way colors are recognised and identified is not universal. In fact, there are significant differences between cultures - with some colors not even existing by name. Instead, they are classed under the umbrella of what another culture might think is a different color entirely.
When we’re trying to teach colors to our kids, it’s easy for them to misunderstand us. Pointing out something yellow, for instance, might seem obvious to us. But there are probably hundreds of other hues around that yellow thing you’re pointing to, making it easy for your child to think you’re talking about another color.
The importance of learning colors
When kids do learn colors, you’ll find their pattern recognition, sorting and classifying abilities all improve. This is because they will understand yet another attribute by which to sort objects. For example, rather than grouping all the circular objects together, they can now group all the red objects together, until they can finally group all the circular, red objects together.
Learning colors has big-picture ramifications too - helping with health and safety. After all, red is used to indicate stop or danger, and yellow is caution, or indicates a potential physical hazard.
The process of learning colors
When it comes to kids learning colors, it’s important to understand that not all colors are created equal. What that means is, you should encourage your child to learn bright, distinct colors first . These are much easier to learn.
Take red, yellow, blue and green for instance. You’ll find these to be the most-used colors for children’s toys for good reason - they are easier to differentiate and recognise than pink, purple and orange.
Once foundational colors are learned, your child will be able to move on to learning shades and intensities .
How to make colors easier to learn
Aside from encouraging your child to learn bright, distinct colors first, there’s an important aspect to the way you teach them, that can help make colors easier to learn.
Many people identify an object by placing the color word immediately before the noun. For example, they say “yellow ball”. After all, it’s the most efficient way to say it. But, this efficient way of talking doesn’t really help children learn colors.
According to testing undertaken by a Stanford University laboratory, two-year-old children made significant improvements in identifying colors when they were given some training using post nominal sentences , like “this crayon is green”. In contrast, those who were trained using the standard prenominal sentences like “that is a red crayon”, were just as confused as ever.
So, why is this? Well, it’s understood that by saying “the ball is yellow” that yellow is an attribute of the ball . This makes it easier for kids to discern exactly what about the ball makes it yellow.
How to teach colors to kids
Seeing as kids are able to learn colors from around three years of age, it’s helpful to start teaching them yourself, before they attend school. So, we’ve included a few tips to help you do just that.
Teaching through everyday play is best when you want to ensure your kids do learn colors. Learning should be fun, so try not to make it a chore.
It might be easiest to concentrate on just one color at a time, and you can choose a new color to focus on each week. That means there will be a lot of repetition, but you’ll also be able to provide the opportunity to learn each color in a variety of contexts - these are valuable principles for learning anything, not just colors.
And don’t think learning means you are stuck indoors. Try talking your child on a walk and pointing out all of the things you can see in that week’s color. Soon, they’ll be pointing them out too!
Once your child has learned a few colors, you’ll be able to continue to cement their knowledge by playing matching games with colors.
How to know if your child is color-blind
Color-blindess is the inability to distinguish between red, blue, yellow and green colors. It’s more common than some people realise.
Red-green is the most common deficiency (being unable to distinguish between these colors). “It occurs in about eight per cent of males and only about 0.4 percent of females.” There is also a rarer deficiency: blue-yellow.
Color-blindness is most often a genetic condition .
Many parents don’t realise that 3 is the age when kids do start to learn colors, so that means it's easy to jump to the conclusion that your child is color-blind. However, if they aren’t capable of learning colors yet, then it’s usually too early to tell if they are color-blind or not.
It may not be until a child starts attending school that it is clear they are color-blind. If you are concerned about your child, opthamologists and optometrists can test for it, as well as some school health services.