Red and Yellow make Pink

Cat has started to grasp the idea of colors mixing and creating new colors, and I’m starting to see it coming out in her play.   It was raining outside today, with no thunder. Cat absolutely loves playing outside in the rain so out we went. Today’s investigations centered primarily around a squeeze bottle.  I have collected a variety of these bottles – they’re intended as condiment bottles for restaurants and such, but they’re extremely useful for paint and water activities. They make my ‘best of’ list for toys – they promote fine motor development and kids absolutely love them.  

As we sat under the carport and watched the rain, Cat found one of those bottles, still half full of colored water from our last water activity.  She immediately squeezed the water out. She refilled the bottle using a heavy stream of rain pouring off the roof. She repeated this many times.  She refilled the bottle with rainwater, and found a place to empty it. She seemed fascinated by her game of relocating the rain.

During this process she ran across some sidewalk chalk.  She immediately came up with a fascinating new idea. She placed broken pieces of red and yellow chalk into the bottle on the next refill.  She noticed that the water started to take on a tint as she filled it up. Once it was filled, she gave it a good shake, saying “what color will it be?”   Then she saw the resulting color and exclaimed “It’s pink!” She proceeded to create an interesting design on the dry brick floor of the carport using her pink water.  She continued her squeeze out / refill activity for awhile yet, pulling the water pump over for the refill step when the rain lightened up.

The water she created with her chalk was definitely pink.  (Salmon may be a tad more accurate, but pink is definitely the right answer for a 3 year old.) Now, it would have been extremely convenient if the chalks she had used to create that color just happened to be red and white.  Young kids are supposed to learn, after all, that the mixture of those two colors is how pink is created. But the chalks weren’t red and white.  They were red and yellow.  And the resulting color was most definitely pink.  

Color theory is often taught as though it’s a math equation.  Red plus yellow equals orange. Yellow plus blue equals green. Red plus white equals pink.  Kids memorize these equations, and are rewarded for their accuracy in correctly regurgitating them.  But those equations only work under specific conditions. They assume certain things about the amounts of each color, and the level of saturation.  There are many conditions that change the outcome. It is a simple thing to take a large quantity of blue for example, and mix it with a small quantity of yellow, and be left with…a slightly different blue.  And of course Cat figured out a fascinating way to combine red and yellow and create not orange but pink.  

As I have studied, observed, and participated in the education of young children,  I have noticed many instances where facts about our world are simplified so extensively that what we actually teach them is demonstrably untrue.  We present a checkerboard of blacks and whites, goods and bads, wrongs and rights. When in fact the world we live in is all grays.  Red and yellow can mix to make orange to be sure.  But, change the circumstances and they can mix to make pink. As a general rule, a child’s understanding of the world is simpler than that of an adult.  But at the same time, I believe that we often underestimate the level of nuance they are capable of.

I can remember that frustration in my own childhood.  There were times when, upon being posed a question, I answered with my best truth: the best representation of my own experience with the world. And I was informed that I was wrong.  Sometimes the issue was that my experience and understanding was deeper and more complex than society expected of a child my age.  Sometimes it was a simple problem of communication. I interpreted the question in a way that wasn’t intended. But the outcome was consistent.  I was left with the clear impression that there was something wrong with me.  

Perhaps this experience is a part of why unschooling and the various related developmental philosophies are so attractive to me.  I have complete confidence that, given the opportunity, Cat will discover on her own that red and yellow (generally) make orange. She doesn’t require a teacher to tell her this, or provide carefully structured activities that ensure that result. Her learning will not be enhanced by drills, tests or grades. And her understanding of color theory will certainly not be promoted if she is told that she is wrong when she declares that red and yellow make pink, when her claim is supported by her own direct experience. 

Like everything else, I do not aim to directly teach her anything about color mixing.  Instead, I ensure that she has the tools she needs to figure it out herself, at her leisure.  I do this by ensuring that she has easy access to a variety of colors, in a variety of mediums that she can mix and manipulate.  And then I sit back and watch while her understanding slowly builds on itself. It’s how I prefer to ‘teach’. It is how I prefer to learn.

I’m excited to watch Cat progress in her understanding of color theory, and I hope it continues to be a process that is surprising and engaging for both of us.  It’s such a fascinating world of light and hues, tints and shades. Science colliding with art in ways that could never be reduced and simplified.

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