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Many Shades: Food Coloring

Make many shades of a single color, using food coloring and clear water. 

Materials and Preparation

  • Put drops of a single color of food coloring in a bottle of water—make sure the color is fairly dark and concentrated.
  • Provide each child and yourself with a white ice cube tray, a cup of clear water, and an eyedropper/pipette.
  • chart paper labeled “Shades of Color” 
  • crayons

Key Science Concepts

  • A single color can have different shades, from very light to very dark. 
  • Diluting colored water with clear water creates a lighter shade of the same color.


Explain the difference between a color and a shade of color. Encourage children to use these words along with light, lighter, dark, and darker; and science process words such as describe, change, compare, dilute, and observe.


Tell children that they are going to make different shades of the same color, using water and food coloring.

  1. Pour some colored water in the first compartment of each ice cube tray. Ask children to describe the color of the water. What does it remind them of?
  2. Use an eyedropper or pipette to put some of that colored water into the next compartment of your ice cube tray. Ask, what do you think will happen if Alyssa adds a little bit of clear water to this colored water? Have the child add a few drops. Ask children to describe the color change.
  3. Have children spend time making shades of the colored water in their own ice cube trays. Circulate and engage individual children in conversation. Share observations and thoughts.
    • How do you think your colors are different from Leslie’s? How are they the same?
    • Point to two different shades: How is that shade of (insert color) different from this shade?
    • Compare how these two look: Which shade do you think is the darkest? Which is the lightest?
    • How did you make that color so light? Can you show me how you did that?

Reflect and Share

Invite children to talk about their discoveries. Encourage them to point to the shades in their filled ice trays as they talk. Ask, What do we mean when we say a color is a different shade? How did we make different shades? It is important here to emphasize the idea that a color, such as red, can come in different shades but still be red.

Create a chart with the heading “Shades of Color.” Write down their ideas about shades of color and, using the different crayons, have them add some visual examples of the different shades to the chart.