Colourful language

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Mervyn Benford sees primary children learn to convey emotion through art and discovers a model lesson. Below, Kate Lee suggests how a visit to the DIY shop can help pupils develop creative language

How many times have you chosen a shade of paint in a DIY store and smiled at its exotic name? It may look like plain old cream, but the label describes it as "Calico", "Dutch White" or even "Eastern Mist".

Instead of grimacing at the thought of all those marketing types getting paid good money to dream up another way to describe beige, why not use the fruits of their labours to help children develop their creative language?

Young children start with a broad-brush approach to describing colour; at age two or three, the truck is probably either red or yellow. A greater ability to observe, recognise and name different shades and intensities develops over time. So, by the time a child starts school, the truck might be dark red or orangey-red, bright yellow or pale yellow.

Try the following ideas with key stage 1 or 2 children: Gather a selection of paint charts and start a discussion with the group.

Ask which colours individual children like, and why? This is great for all abilities and is naturally inclusive. Then move the discussion on to talk about what those words underneath the little squares of colour might mean.

Oh, so a particular colour can have its own name! Now look at why that might be.

Take the children for a walk around the school grounds or a park and encourage them to see how many shades of one colour there are (green is an excellent choice).

Encourage them to record and describe their findings: a whiteish-green butterfly, river-green painted railings, lemony-green new leaves, brownish-green dry grass, and so on.

Next, encourage them to mix their own shades of paint. This should be a no-holds-barred activity, so make sure paint supplies are at an all-time high (especially white for mixing pale shades).

Give each child a square of paper, so the results look like giant paint swatches. As you help the children in their mixing and painting, prompt them to start considering the name they might choose for their colour. Make sure everyone knows that anything is possible; if Ted wants to call that shade of brown "My Dog" then that's fine.

Make an exhibition with the name labels displayed to show the children's individual approaches. Make sure the children are involved in the "hang".

See what connections they make: perhaps they will describe the display as a mosaic, a pattern, a patchwork. Maybe they will decide to impose some sort of order - eg putting the colours in rainbow order or grouping all the blues.

Invite lots of people to come and see it. Why not treat it as a catalyst for establishing links with people whose jobs have a strong visual element and who are interested in colour, pattern and texture?

You could invite an interior designer to come and show the children their "mood boards" and explain how they choose paint shades to create a particular feel. The children will start to associate words such as "warm", "cosy", "cheerful", "fresh" and "uplifting" with colours, and will see how language is an incredibly flexible and personal tool for expressing feelings.

Kate Lee is the author of two rhyming picture books that focus on colour: Snappy Little Colours (Templar Publishing) and Santa's Suit (Campbell Books)


* Write colour stories. The Crown Paints website ( features a set of short but engagingly written "colour stories" linking events and emotions to colours. Give the children themes (the farm in springtime, the pier at night, going to bed), or ask them to choose their own.

* Add an environmental slant. Talk about how paint is made, how old tins are disposed of. Companies such as the Little Greene Paint Company's website ( offer useful information.

* Think print. Invite a printer or graphic designer to talk about the printing process. Just as the three primary colours in various combinations create a wide range of colours, so the four-colour printing process uses just four inks (black, yellow, cyan and magenta) to create any shade you see printed.

* Do it yourself. Take small groups of children to a DIY store where paint mixing takes place on the premises (for example, Homebase or Brewers). This brings in ICT aspects (the exact proportions are decided by computer). And while you're there, collect lots of colour cards. They make perfect bookmarks.

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