Ashbrook, Peggy, Science and Children
Blue green, blue grass, blue ice, cobalt, light blue, cornflower blue, blue Jazz (what color is that?!), the list goes on and on. Colors are one of the earliest classification systems that parents teach their children, and it is such a complicated topic that children can continue to study it throughout their school years. The topic of color can be a springboard to diverse topics including colors in nature, how vision works, the function of color vision in animals, and the properties of light. Learning about color addresses part of the National Science Education Content Standards A (Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and Understanding about scientific inquiry) and B (Properties of objects and materials, and Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism). Plus, color is a fun topic to explore.
As one of those things that we cannot directly see, much of the electromagnetic spectrum is a mystery to children (and many adults who never learned or don't remember how their radio or microwave works). Unlike light reflecting off mirrors or glass, we can't see the path of most electromagnetic waves. The visible light that we experience as color is part of the larger electromagnetic spectrum.
Teaching the names of the colors or using them in the classroom (e.g, for color patterns, math groups, and so on) and referring to various hues as reddish-purple or greenish-blue can raise children's awareness that the colors make up a spectrum, preparing them to understand in later years that the spectrum stretches further than we can see. Color mixing activities can also help children understand that colors can change gradually into another color. Rainbows, a symbol of the visible light spectrum, are popular with young children even though they are unaware of the details, such as the refraction of light and light traveling in waves. If you have a sunny classroom window, hang a prism and look for rainbows.
Individual exploration with flashlights and colored acetate film and paints and water are a basis for further thinking. Even children who do not yet know names for the colors they see can learn about the nature of the materials through exploration.
Peggy Ashbrook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Science Is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers and teaches preschool science in Alexandria, Virginia.
DeVita, C., and S. Ruppert. 2006. Secret message science goggles. Science and Children 44(7): 30-35.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Mixing Light and Mixing Pigments
* To explore mixing colors
* To notice if the same results are achieved each time the same two colors are combined
* Squares of red, blue, and yellow filter sheets, commonly available from craft or artist stores (see Internet Resource)
* Flashlights (at least 3)
* White paper
* Crayons in a large spectrum of colors
* Clear plastic egg cartons or cups
* Food coloring or liquid watercolors in red, yellow, and blue