It seems like most toys on the market today claim to be educational and aim to “teach” babies and toddlers shapes and colors – among other skills. What fascinates me about this is how they sell parents on the idea that children so young can even comprehend these abstract concepts. And, so is the same for the child with special needs – beyond the toddler age, but very much in that developmental stage.
Activities pinned on Pinterest tend to do the same for early childhood learners. When we come across these as homeschooling parents, we assume that all children must learn shapes and colors while in preschool (or at this level). What if I challenge you with this post? What if I tell you that you can skip “teaching” shapes and colors to your child with special needs?
Ok. So, you’re not skipping shapes and colors altogether. But, I want to make you conscious of the fact that it’s not necessary for your child to master these concepts – specifically if your child is not developmentally ready. Just because publishing companies say that all kids need to learn shapes and colors, doesn’t mean you need to begin there with your child.
Why the concepts of shape and color may be a challenge for children with special needs
- Color is an abstract concept. Concrete thinkers may struggle with abstract concepts.
- Shape is an early numeracy concept. Like all numeracy concepts, shapes, too, are abstract. And, they, too, can be difficult to grasp for the concrete thinker.
- Children with fine motor delays and eye-hand coordination difficulties will find drawing shapes to be a challenge.
- Some children are color-blind, making distinguishing colors difficult.
While it may be a challenge to learn these concepts, there are ways you can expose your child to the concepts. However, unless you know that your child is at this developmental stage, do not make it a goal for your child to know how to name, point, sort, match, compare, or reproduce shapes and colors. You’d be setting yourself up for disappointment and your child for frustration.
Sequence for learning about shapes and colors
- Exploring shapes in our world. Since figures are all around us, your child is already internalizing differences in the objects he touches and sees. Allow him to explore in this way. Don’t begin by saying, “This is a circle.” It means nothing to your child in the exploratory stage.
- Different colors, same shape. In a sensory bin, offer objects of one shape in a variety of colors for your child to explore. For instance, if you choose circles, then, find as many circular objects as you can to place in the sensory bin. The colors do not matter. Size does not matter either. As long as they are all circular. Allow exploration for about a week with these objects until your child internalizes the shape. You can begin to use the word “circle” as you pick up the objects and feel them “Round, round, round. Circle.” Point out circles in your child’s world for the rest of the week. Change to another shape in different colors the following week, and so on.
- Shapes in books. Be careful with too many shapes being pointed out at once. Books intended to teach shapes will bombard your child with all of the shapes in one book. Instead, take control of that book and, while exploring circles that week, only go to the circle pages in the book. There is no rule that says that you have to read an entire book front to back – especially non-fiction books. “Ooh, Look. Circle. Round, round, round. Circle,” while you trace the circles and your child observes. Repeat with other shapes the following week.
- Trace the shapes. Eventually, have your child trace the shapes himself. Since he’s observed you do this, you can guide him hand-over-hand tracing circles in a book or if an object is flat enough. Repeat your verbal routine. “Ooh, Look. Circle. Round, round, round. Circle.” Repeat with other shapes the following week.
- Draw the shapes. Finally, have your child draw the shapes. DO NOT go to pencil and paper as this would then become handwriting skill practice. Simply draw the shapes in the air with a pointer finger, hand or foot (guide hand-over-hand, or hand-over-foot), on the floor, and, if your child can tolerate it, in sand, in playdough, in flour, in sugar, etc. Let your child internalize the forms with his body. Then, move on to doing the same with a tool in his hand. Using a stick, a flashlight, or a rhythm stick, etc., guide your child’s hand as he draws the shapes in the air, on the floor, on the wall, etc. Again, use the verbal routine, “Circle. Round, round, round. Circle.” Repeat with other shapes the following week.
- Explore colors in our world. How lucky we are that we have colors all around us. Just like shapes, let your child take in the colors of the world. Children’s toys are full of them, but also, those nature walks provide lots of visual stimulation for your child. Take it all in without naming the colors. Just explore at this point.
- Different shapes, same color. Again, introducing one color per week (beginning with the primary colors), prepare sensory bins with one color, but different kinds of objects. For instance, you can have an entirely yellow bin with yellow balls, yellow cars, yellow scarves, yellow ribbons, yellow stars, etc. The objects and size do not matter, so long as everything is yellow. Let your child internalize the color, and then begin naming it, and signing it, if your child uses ASL. “Yellow. Yellow. Yellow,” as you pick up each item. Point out yellow in his world for the rest of the week. Repeat with other shapes the following week.
- Colors in books. Just like with shapes, you don’t need to read an entire book dedicated to colors. Simply go to the yellow pages and point to the colors. “Ooh, Look. Yellow. Yellow. Yellow,” as you point to all the colors. Repeat with other shapes the following week.
- Two colors, one shape. To help him discriminate between colors, introduce two colors at the same time (after all have been introduced as above) using identical shapes. For instance, you may have two star shapes, but one is red, the other is yellow. “Red. Yellow,” as you point to each one accordingly. Dedicate the week to these two colors. Add on one more color over time. Do not test your child. Just let him observe what you’re doing and saying. He will internalize it by repetition.
- Experiment with color. Working with art materials is a concrete way to for your child to interact with color. Just like everything else suggested above, begin with that one color of the week. Only paint with yellow for the entire week. Color with the yellow crayon, play with the yellow playdough, use a yellow marker, etc. It’s ok that everything is yellow – even the trees. The point is you’re introducing that one color and you’re reinforcing it in every way you can without expecting your child to name, point, sort, match, compare or reproduce them on his own. If you find that this does begin to happen, however, then it’s time to celebrate! Hurray! You’ve done such a thorough job of exposing your child to colors (or shapes), that he’s beginning to transition from abstract to concrete.
Note: I am not a therapist, therefore, if your child is color blind, I highly suggest you consult with your child’s therapist for strategies in dealing with color blindness.
What concerns do you have regarding the teaching of shapes and colors to your child? What strategies have worked for you that you’d like to share?