Teach Kids About Color and Vision

Making colorful art with children is a pleasure, and one I wanted to spend some time with here. But since many kids are so attracted to bright, beautiful colors and rainbows, I wanted to use color to encourage their excitement about scientific concepts and experiments, too. So here you can move from art to science to nature, and then end by talking about the Hindu festival Holi.

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • mix paints
  • make art like Andy Warhol
  • make rainbow water
  • explore data visualization
  • learn about how animals use color
  • design an installation as an homage to Yayoi Kusama
  • investigate chemical reactions with indicator solutions
  • do chromatography experiments
  • learn about the Hindu festival Holi
  • and more

(Designed for kids preschool-1st/2nd grade, though many materials and activities might be of interest to older children and adults, too.)

Read On

  • Colors Everywhere, Tana Hoban [Amazon | Bookshop] — Tana Hoban’s books are truly wonderful, and even as an adult, I love reading them every single time. There are always clever, delightful things to notice. This particular book is a rare thing in children’s literature: a study of color palettes.
  • Of Colors and Things, Tana Hoban [Amazon | Bookshop] — More clever and inspiring color photography.
  • Optical Physics for Babies, Chris Ferrie [Amazon | Bookshop] — Chris Ferrie’s books always say they’re “for babies,” but they’re decidedly not. Instead, they’re great, extremely clear science books, suitable for preschoolers and even elementary-aged kids (also helpful for anyone who would like to know how to explain scientific concepts clearly to their children). This particular one is very short and simple, but it explains how light bends extremely clearly and is great. We have a lot of his books, and they’re all really excellent (and not for babies!). 
  • Optical Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber [Amazon] — A deeper dive into optical illusions and optical physics, for curious kindergartners and up.
  • Mix It Up, Hervé Tullet [Amazon | Bookshop] — When you want to explore color mixing but can’t bother to get out the paints, here’s the next best thing.
  • ABC Color, Ingela P. Arrhenius [Amazon] — For the littlest readers, this book features “lesser known” colors, like razzmatazz and chartreuse. Full of fun words to say, even for older kids.
  • The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, Supriya Kelkar and Alea Marley [Amazon | Bookshop] — A little boy expresses his emotions through the colors of his patka.
  • Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!, Sarah Suzuki and Ellen Weinstein [Amazon | Bookshop] — A solid biography of Kusama for kids.
  • A Rainbow of My Own, Don Freeman [Amazon | Bookshop] — A simple and lovely picture book about the joy of rainbows, suitable for the very young.
  • Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, Rob Sanders and Steven Salerno [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another way to consider color and rainbows: the meaning and history behind the rainbow flag. For kindergarten and up.
  • Festival of Colors, Kabir Sehgal, Surishtha Sehgal, and Vashti Harrison [Amazon | Bookshop] — Our favorite book about the Indian festival Holi.
  • The Colors of History: How Colors Shaped the World, Clive Gifford and Marc-Etienne Peintre [Amazon | Bookshop] — For independent readers (and even grown-ups), a fascinating book exploring the history of colors. Full of facts and beautifully designed.
  • Wow! Said the Owl, Tim Hopgood [Amazon | Bookshop] — While this is a sweet introduction to colors for babies, this picture books also works well for slightly older children when thinking about how vision is different during day and night (and why we see color during the daytime that we can’t see at night).
  • The Mixed-Up Chameleon, Eric Carle [Amazon | Bookshop] — A classic, and a lovely book about colors in the animal world.


Primary and Secondary Colors in Art and Color Mixing

Watch: Sesame Street: OK Go – Three Primary Colors

Read: Read: Mix It Up!, Hervé Tullet [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Primary color mixing with paints
With acrylic paint, mix primary colors both with brushes and by putting two colors on opposites sides of a piece of paper and then folding the paper to smash them together.

Activity: Frozen color mixing
Be sure to wear gloves while doing this experiment. It works fine if you put the ice in bags and let it melt that way, but you’ll make the most impressive display by letting them melt on large plates.

Activity: Color equations
Make three circles on butcher paper (with pen), with a plus between the first two and an equals sign after the second. Have kids paint the circles with two colors and then mix the colors to find the “solution.” (You could make this quicker by coloring in the first two circles beforehand and then having them just find the solutions.) Then try new equations: a small circle (say, of yellow) plus a big circle (say, of magenta) = … And then reverse it: a small bit of magenta plus a large portion of yellow = … This play with proportions is really great, and it’s nice to have it all laid out on paper at the end of it, so you can see just how differently the colors came out when you changed the proportions of colors.

Watch: Cake Sprinkles: How It’s Made
How Crayons Are Made
Read: The Day the Crayons Quit, Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Recycled crayons
Take crayon bits and melt them in shaped silicone molds in the oven at 200 degrees for several minutes to form new color combinations (this might permanently stain your molds, so be aware of that — they’ll be fine, but you probably won’t want to make ice in them after this).

Activity: Make a light lab
An activity using colored water in jars and flashlights to make beautiful color displays. You’ll want a dark-ish room and white panels (like boxes) on three sides of the jars.

Activity: Color-changing cabbage
This extremely impressive science experiment lets kids explore chemical reactions and indicator solutions. It’s very easy and makes a big impact. Complete info sheet here.

Activity: Build a rainbow fort
Using any colored blankets, play silks, or clothing you have around, create a rainbow fort or hideaway. We used these fort-building rods for ours.

Color Collections

Read: Of Colors and Things, Tana Hoban [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Colors (A Collection Film)

Activity: Rainbow collection
Collect toys and objects from the house and group them by color. You might set out a sheet of construction paper in each color, then let the kids run around collecting items and arranging them on the papers. Take a photo of your rainbow collection!

Color Palettes

Read: Colors Everywhere, Tana Hoban [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Color palettes and visualization
Find some favorite objects and color-match all the colors in them to crayons or markers and make color palettes for each one — then label. You can also experiment with data visualization, like bubble charts: try representing the colors in a toy proportionally, with larger bubbles for more prominent colors and smaller bubbles for traces of colors.

Andy Warhol

Read: Who Is Andy Warhol?
Activity: Make Art Like Andy Warhol
First, take a look at some of Warhol’s works: from Marilyn Monroe (and scroll to the bottom for installation views) and Lita Curtain Star [Lita Hornick]. Take pictures of the kids and yourself against a white wall, and then print them on a black-and-white printer by indicating on the print menu that you want six copies per page, filling the page. (For preschoolers, they might get the most enjoyment out of coloring a single big image.) We used good-quality colored pencils, and these came out beautifully.

Color Symbols and Feelings

Read: The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, Supriya Kelkar and Alea Marley [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Colorscope shorts
Red | Orange | Yellow | Green | Blue | Purple | Pink | Gold | Black | White
Activity: Feelings self-portraits
Print out black-and-white pictures of yourselves (making different faces, or perhaps using ones from the Andy Warhol self-portraits), then decorate and color them to show emotions.

Yayoi Kusama

Read: Who Is Yayoi Kusama?
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!, Sarah Suzuki and Ellen Weinstein [Amazon | Bookshop]
Yayoi Kusama — Obsessed with Polka Dots
Yayoi Kusama Interview — Earth Is a Polka Dot (short excerpt in which Kusama explains the significance of the polka dot)
A Vivid Message of Peace from Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room

Activity: Yayoi Kusama-style Obliteration Room homage in your house
Washi tape long strips of white butcher paper to a small space in your house. Consider covering furniture and lampshades, too, and if you have white paper cups and plates, put those out, too! You will need dot stickers in three sizes: 1″2″, and 4″. Set aside (and don’t use) brown, black, and white stickers. Then get right to it. It’s exhilarating.

Optics and Color Illusions

Read: Optical Physics for Babies, Chris Ferrie [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: What Is Color? (starting at why objects appear certain colors)
Does This Look White to You?

Activity: Make a coloring-changing spinner with red and green
Cut pieces of card into circles and divide it, with pencil markings, into quarters. Then color the quarters in alternating red and green marker. Stick a sharpened pencil through the card to make it into a spinning top. (It works best if you slip it onto the handle of an existing spinning top, but it can work on a pencil, too.) It might take some experimenting with shades of red and green to get this to work, so this activity requires a bit of patience and persistence. Even if you can’t get it to work, you can observe what happens when you spin it and the differences between spinners with different shades of red and green.

Watch: How We See Color (begins at explanation of why we don’t see color when it’s dark)
Read: Wow! Said the Owl, Tim Hopgood [Amazon | Bookshop] (relevant here as a book about seeing colors during the day that we aren’t able to see at night)

Read/browse: Optical Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber [Amazon]
Look: Optical Illusions
Blue and green | Rotating snakes (and others) | Lilac chaser | Disappearing colors

Activity: Stroop test
Complete instructions and a demonstration of how to conduct the test in the video above. This test, using color, brilliantly demonstrates the difficulty the brain has in doing two things simultaneously. If you have a reader and a pre-reader in your house, your children might find it fascinating that the pre-reader will have no difficulty at all with naming the colors, while the reader will likely stumble and get flustered. I think it’s worthwhile to draw all of this up on paper, but there’s also an interactive online test here.
You can find further discussion of this test here.

Colors in Animals and Nature

Watch: How Do Animals Change Color?
And why? Watch:

Watch: Why Is Blue So Rare in Nature?
Why Are Flamingos Pink?
How Baby Flamingos Get Their Pink Color

Read: The Mixed-Up Chameleon, Eric Carle [Amazon | Bookshop]


Activity: Chromatography with markers (via the Royal Institution)
A fascinating experiment with markers and coffee filters that lets children see the colors of ink used in making their favorite marker colors. Full information about this experiment here.


Read: A Rainbow of My Own, Don Freeman [Amazon | Bookshop]
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, Rob Sanders and Steven Salerno [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Exploration of light and rainbows with prisms
Full range of activities to be found here.

Activity: Make a rainbow with a flashlight and a glass of water

Activity: Skittles rainbows
Arrange Skittles in any pattern you like around the edge of saucer, carefully pour warm water into the bowl, then observe and discuss the results.

Activity: Using color to explore capillary action: walking water science experiment
Detailed instructions here.

Activity: Using color to explore density: sugar rainbow
Directions here. You’ll need a pipette, but the results of this experiment are very impressive.

Activity: Play with diffraction glasses
A much-loved toy. We have these.


Read: Festival of Colors, Kabir Sehgal, Surishtha Sehgal, and Vashti Harrison [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Get an Up-Close Look at the Colorful Holi Festival
Holi [slow-motion video]
Holi, the Festival of Colors (photo slide-show)

Activity: Outdoor play with color powder
Be sure to wear white or light colors, if you can. This is the color powder we used.

Read On, Grown-Ups

  • Interaction of Color, Josef Albers [Amazon | Bookshop] — A classic of color theory, by an artist who was an expert on it.

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