When to Teach Letters, Colors and Numbers to Babies

By Ellen Galinsky

When should I start teaching letters, colors and numbers to my nine-month-old daughter?

First of all, what a wondrous time! Children are born learning and, in these early years, you are laying the foundation for their lifelong learning.

Noting that the brain grows from one pound to its full size in the first five to six years of life, neuroscientist Sam Wang of Princeton University compares brain development to building a house:

A baby’s brain is like a house that’s being built. If you think about all the things that babies have happen to them—we feed them, we love them, we talk to them, they have other experiences with other kids, whatever it is that they encounter—all of those are learning experiences. So, there’s this constant construction project where babies and small children are putting together the basic foundations for who they are going to become later.

Because babies learn so much in these early years—with 700 trillion connections among the neurons in the brain being formed during that time—you’re not alone in wondering when and how to teach kids about letters, colors and numbers.

Even very young children can learn to memorize the names of numbers, letters and colors. What’s important is that they don’t just memorize the words, which they may do to please adults, with little to no understanding of what these concepts mean. When you use everyday moments to help children understand the concepts of colors, letters and numbers, they learn what these ideas mean, and they learn the life skill of Making Connections.

Making Connections is at the heart of learning—figuring out what’s the same and what’s different—and sorting these things into categories. Making unusual connections is at the core of creativity. In a world where people can “Google” information, people who can see connections are able to go beyond knowing information to using this information well.

Be a partner in your child’s explorations and play.

During the early years, kids learn by touching, tasting and playing with everything around them. Get involved, but let your child take the lead in choosing activities and objects that interest her. Instead of taking over or telling your child what to do, be a guide.

Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University have found that children learn more when their parents are involved in what they do:

When a parent joins in, we call it “guided play,” and it always elevates the level of play. So, parents shouldn’t feel like they have to stay out and let the kids play on their own—they should join in, but they can’t be the boss. They have to follow the child’s lead and talk about the kind of things that the child is interested in.

This is where you can add concepts naturally, such as letters, colors and numbers. For example, you can say:

  • “You are playing with the yellow duck in the bath.”
  • “I gave you two pieces of banana.”

Even though your child at nine months is just making sounds as a step into learning to talk, she hears and increasingly understands what you are saying. Over time, she will begin to understand these and other more abstract concepts.

Build on your child’s interests.

Sam Wang states that the key to learning is play.

Play is where active learning takes place—where the baby is engaged or the child is engaged and just wants more and more of that. As long as that element of fun and play are present, then that enhances learning.

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington adds:

As I’ve watched my own child grow, there are various times and various things that light her up. As parents and as caretakers of a whole generation of kids, we have to be tuned into that engagement process.

What makes your baby’s eyes light up? Karen Wynn of Yale University finds that adults promote children’s learning on the deepest level when they tap into children’s passion and enthusiasm, then build on it.

The best way to do that is through back and forth conversations. ‘Take Turns Talk’ are conversations, with and without words.

  • Pay attention to where your baby is looking or pointing and describe it: “Do you see the big yellow school bus? Beep beep!” Children are more likely to learn the names of things that they find interesting.
  • Add on to your child’s ideas. Watch her play closely and see if you can help her take it even further. If your child is stacking objects, provide a choice of two different things to add on top: “Do you want the blue cup or the orange one? You chose the orange cup to stack next. You now have two cups. Let’s see what happens!”

Extend your child’s early understanding of big ideas.

A series of studies over the past three decades has found that early foundations of knowledge and skills emerge in babies’ first months of life. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University describes these as core cognitive capacities that “come online” before they could possibly have been taught, and these capacities need developing.

As amazing as it may seem, babies are born with an ability to grasp many big ideas like numbers, space, objects, even people! These are the foundations upon which children build learning as they grow and develop.

  • Listen carefully to your words when you guide your child’s play. One of the things you do—maybe without even being aware of it—is help your child make connections. In a sentence as simple as: “Look at the big red fire truck,” you help your child connect her experiences to ideas like space, size, numbers and colors.
  • Play finger games or sing songs and nursery rhymes that use numbers and rhyming like “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” or “The Ants Go Marching.”
  • Talk about math everyday. For instance, when you change your child’s diaper or wash her in the bath, count her fingers and toes. Talk about amounts like “more” and “less” and ideas like “empty” and “full” during meal times.
  • When watching your child play or helping her get dressed, talk about how her body is moving, using words like “up,” “down.” This helps her develop her sense of space, a skill she’ll need later for science and math learning.

As your child grows into her second year and begins to understand these big ideas even more, don’t be surprised if the learning is uneven. Your child may be able to sing a number song and say all of the numbers in order, but if you ask how many pretzels you are holding in your hand, she may say: “two, five.” Or, your child may get stuck on a certain color. Whenever you say the word color, your child may say: “yellow.” Learning these big ideas takes time, but when learned in everyday ways, they’ll have a much deeper meaning.

Create a supportive environment for learning.

Children learn what they see and live, so it’s up to you to create an environment where words, reading, listening and learning are important. Take time in your everyday routines to:

  • Point out signs, letters and numbers at home and on the go. Show your child different street signs or traffic symbols: “There’s the red stop sign. It tells all of the cars to stop.” This helps her make connections between letters, words and what they stand for, an important piece of early literacy learning.
  • Tell stories and sing songs. Encourage your child’s love of language by using lots of descriptive words, telling favorite stories over and over, and exploring the rhythm and music of song. Make a family story time part of your day.