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If he doesn’t know colors, is my 3-year-old color blind?
If an inability to remember the names of colors is his only developmental problem, I wouldn’t worry. For reasons that are difficult to understand, many preschool children have trouble learning the names of colors, even though they can correctly distinguish between the colors. Children as young as 3 months of age can be shown to recognize color differences by a complex process called habituation. But it is a long time before they can correctly name them. Many 3-year-olds have difficulty doing so, and even some 4- and 5-year-olds.

Here is a simple way to determine whether he is color blind—provided he knows the meaning of the words “same” and “different.” Put out two brightly colored blocks or toys, one red and one green, and ask him if they are the “same” or a “different” color. Try it with other pairs of colors, though red-green color-blindness is the most common variety—and it is actually quite rare. Then put out two of the same color in front of him and ask if they are the same or different. If he gives you a wrong answer, correct him gently. If he answers correctly, say something like, “That’s right,” and then name the two colors for him. After you’ve done this with him a few times, ask him to name the two colors.

Another good exercise is color-matching. Cut small pieces of vividly colored cloth or paper. Then get a favorite book of his and, using one color at a time, ask him to lay the paper or cloth over part of a picture in the book that is the same color. He will enjoy doing this. Then, just to make it more fun, give him the scraps and let him ask you to carry out the assignment.

Dressing can also be a big help in learning colors. “Bring me your blue shirt.” If he brings the wrong one, correct him with no fuss. “No, that’s your yellow shirt.” Then, if there is anything close by (or in your clothing) that you can point to say, “This is blue; find your shirt that’s that color.”

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education