Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh is one of my very favorite books for teaching about primary and secondary colors. The children absolutely love it as well. In the story, three mice climb into three jars of paint (red, yellow, and blue) and then begin dancing, stirring and mixing with their feet as they blend the primary colors together to create secondary colors. (Incidently, White Rabbit’s Color Book by Alan Baker is also fantastic and follows a very similar format. Just in case one is easier for you to get your hands on than they other!)
I love to follow up this activity with a color mixing activity. Simple finger-painting works well, as does the Colorful Snack activity. My favorite way to extend this activity is with tie-dying! I love to start out with a white rolled up shirt, and then dip it into each color just as the mice in the book. Here’s how I usually do it.
For starters, I like to follow the spiral pattern explained here at the Rit website. So read through those directions first, and then my directions might make more sense! (I could only hope!) I like this because it gives a great wearable sample of color mixing as the colors blend together.
I start out by putting the water on the stove to heat up as I read the story with the children. Once we’re done and the water is sufficiently heated, I pour the water into three bowls (this will stain plastic, so ice cream buckets or something disposable is great, otherwise use stainless steel). I ask the children about the three colors in mice paint as I add the dye to make one red, one yellow, and one blue – just like in the book. The Rit instructions give specific proportions, but I kind of eye-ball. About half to a full gallon of water to half a container of dye. This is much more concentrated than the directions call for, but it gives more vibrant colors.
Then we twist up the shirts as directed and secure with rubber bands to create our white “mice”. Now, I am generally a very hands-on person, but once it comes to the dying part, I pretty much keep it to my own glove-covered hands. (I mean, we are talking about boiling hot water and permanent dye.) I dip the shirts into the first color and have the children count or sing to help me time the process. I try to get 1-2 minutes in each color. Give the shirts a quarter turn as you dip them into the next color. Once you’ve been through all of the colors, you can unwrap them to show the result. I’ve found, however, that if you let the shirts sit for a few hours to “cure” the colors are a bit better. So you may want to do a “dummy” shirt so that the children can see the result without unwrapping theirs.
The Rit directions also say to unwrap the shirts before rinsing. There tends to be a bit of color picked up by the white areas of the shirt as you rinse, but this is minimized if you do your rinsing while the shirts are still wrapped. Rinse as well as you can, until they run clear. The shirts still need to be washed and dried afterward, so there will be some bleeding, but a bit less than if you unwrap before rinsing.
I like to show the shirts again before sending them home, since some time will have elapsed since the activity. We talk again about the story and how we made the shirts, and I point out the different colors in the shirts. You can find where the yellow and red meet together to make orange…and on and on. I send the shirts home with a note reminding parents to be careful as they wash them for the next few washes in case the colors bleed further. (I usually just wash mine with towels for a while. Of course, I don’t really have fancy towels though.)
You’ll notice in one of the pictures above, I have one batch of shirts in the red and another in the yellow. This worked OK, but I found that when I used the same dye for more than one batch, my colors were a bit tainted. So if you can, do all the shirts at once. I like to do it with a small group, about 4-6 children at a time, one group per day, so I can have a fresh batch each time.
This is a really exciting activity that incorporates the concepts of primary and secondary colors, wearable art, and the senses as the children see and smell the dye and as they feel the shirts they made. It is a perfect extension for either Mouse Paint or White Rabbit’s Color Book, which builds language and literacy skills as well. So glove up, and get into some Mouse Paint!