And what’s amazing is that to get all the benefits of reading aloud, you don’t even have to read something overtly “educational.” No matter whether you read Where the Wild Things Are for the 72 billionth time or the back of the Cheerios box to your child, their brain will soak up new words and knowledge like a sponge.
Or if you want to be more proactive, books are an excellent tool for teaching your child basic concepts, like the alphabet, counting, shapes, colors, and so on. In fact, a whole category of children’s books is devoted to this endeavor, called “concept books” because their goal is to teach kids basic concepts.
But unfortunately, a significant portion of those concept books are missing one essential ingredient for the learning process: fun.
The Problem With Some Concept Books for Kids
Some concept books approach their subject a bit like a drill sergeant might, standing at a blackboard and running through the concepts without warmth, a sense of wonder, or any trace of humor.
“When a lesson starts with humor, there is more alerting, and the subsequent information is attached to the positive emotional event as an event or flashbulb memory…
Optimal brain activation occurs when subjects are in positive emotional states or when the material holds personal meaning, connects to their interests, is presented with elements of novelty, or evokes wonder. This is why attentiveness is so closely linked to positive emotional cueing and personal meaning. When there is connection to prior knowledge or positive emotional experience, new information passage through the limbic system will be enhanced. The thalamus will then ‘decide’ to pay attention to the information.”
In other words, the best concept books make learning fun for kids. If a concept book fails to surprise your child, tickle their funny bone, or inspire a sense of awe, it probably won’t teach them anything anyway.
The Best Concept Books That Will Get Kids Excited to Learn
A while ago, my kids and I spent months putting together a list of the best books for 2-year-olds, and parents message me every week to express gratitude for that list. But since then, I’ve been getting lots of follow-up questions from parents on one section from that list in particular: What other learning books for toddlers and preschoolers do you recommend?
Then not too long ago, I was excited to hear from the awesome folks at Candlewick Press because not only did they want to share a copy of This Is a Book of Shapes for the purposes of an honest review, but they also offered to sponsor a whole post about the best concept books for children. And so my family set out on a months-long research project to find fun concept books that both kids and parents will enjoy. (Because if kids are going to ask us to read it again and again, it may as well be something we’ll get a kick out of, too!)
To be clear, all opinions expressed in this post are my own, and I was not required or influenced to give anything but an honest appraisal. I have high standards for children’s books, and I recommend only books I’ve enjoyed with my own family.
What Makes This List of Children’s Concept Books Different
Over the years, we’d already read tons of concept books, but we wanted to do a thorough review to uncover all the best concept books. So every week, I put 30+ books on hold at the library, plus at every visit I browsed the shelves for even more concept books. All told, my kids and I read hundreds of children’s concept books to prepare this list.
The list below is the cream of the crop from those hundreds of concept books: the books I loved reading, and the books my kids couldn’t get enough of. Read these concept books with your child, and you’ll infuse the learning experience with a major dose of fun.
Note: indicates my family’s absolute top favorites on the list. These are the books my kids absolutely can’t get enough of!
Counting Books for Kids
One large category of concept books involves counting and numbers because number sense is a precursor to later math skills. But in order for the knowledge to sink in with your child, it’s important to have a book you both enjoy. Here are the counting books that stand out from the pack:
This illustrator has created two of our favorite concept books of all time: this book and ABC Dream (see below). Not only are the illustrations absolutely gorgeous, but the objects shown for each number also start with the same beginning sound – one owl, two turtles, and so on. Plus, at the end, the book challenges kids to go back and find specific objects, which keeps them poring over the book long after you’re done reading it together.
Tip: Haven’t heard of Bookshop yet? It’s an online bookstore with a mission to support local, independent bookstores. As of January 2021, they’ve raised more than 11 million dollars for local bookstores! If you want to order books online while also supporting local bookstores, feel free to use the Bookshop buttons under each book recommendation in this post.
No matter how wiggly my toddlers are, this sweet counting book calms them right down. On each page, be sure to pause and encourage your child to count the objects and let the magic of the book take over. Side note: This simple, quiet book is my go-to at bedtime rather than Goodnight Moon because of the loving relationship between the girl and her father.
This counting book doubles as a seek-and-find book, making it one of those rare counting books you can actually enjoy with your child again and again. Your child can look for the hidden dragon in each spread, count the objects named, and also enjoy the fun little details in the stunning pen-and-ink illustrations.
Shape Books for Kids
These books about shapes are the perfect complement to hands-on learning about shapes.
This playful book about shapes starts off straightforward – “This is a circle. This is a square. This is a triangle.” – but takes a deliciously silly turn with “This is an emu pushing a pancake wagon down a hill.” Then just when your child settles into that new pattern of factual then off-the-wall, the end of this book catches them off guard one last time. As a cherry on top, the final spread features all the animals and shapes mentioned earlier, so your child will stay engaged even longer as they pick out all the objects they recognize.
This is the first book in the Shape trilogy, but to be clear these books fall more into the narrative camp rather than traditional concept books. However, these books will hook your child first with an engaging story and then reinforce the concept of shapes while they’re having fun. The best of both worlds! After Triangle, check out Square and Circle.
Featuring bright photos by a National Geographic photographer, this book draws the connection between each shape and everyday objects in real life with that same shape. Any time you can draw a connection between a concept and something in a child’s daily life, that gives a huge boost to the learning process. If your child enjoys this book, you’ll want to check out the authors’ other book, Colors.
Alphabet Books for Kids
Alphabet books pose a conundrum because toddlers and preschoolers don’t yet understand the concept of first letter. In other words, when young kids see a picture of an apple next to the letter “A”, their brains don’t yet make the connection that apple starts the short “a” vowel sound, which is represented by the letter “A.” (For more on this, see “Concept Books and Young Children” in Ways of Knowing: Literature and the Intellectual Life of Children.)
Experts say most kids start making sound-letter associations around age 4 or even age 5. So when sharing alphabet books with young kids, don’t stress if your child doesn’t seem to be picking up on first letter sounds quite yet. For young kids, it’s more valuable to talk about the objects they’re seeing to grow their understanding of the world and with it, their vocabulary.
This is an absolutely gorgeous book, which means I never get tired of reading it with my kids. But what makes this one of the best alphabet books for kids is that they love the “treasure hunt” of finding all the objects in each spread. For example, on the “A” page, you see an argyle-patterned “A” with an apple perched on top and arrows struck through it. Then next to the “A” is an apple core swarmed by ants. Your child will delight in uncovering all the little details in each spread.
This book is a fun way to expose kids to different fruits and vegetables and to the alphabet. A couple fun ideas for this book: on each page ask your child to pick out one thing they want to eat (and then pretend to pick it off the page and eat it!), or bring the book along to the grocery store and see if your child can find the fruits and veggies from the book. Bonus points if you let them pick out one thing to take home and try!
Young kids love real-life photos, and this alphabet book is full of striking shots of animals. But the best part is that each letter gets one teasing photo where your child can have fun guessing which animal is coming in the next spread. Plus, at the end you’ll find a glossary with fascinating bits of trivia about all the animals featured in the book. Perfect for kids who love animals!
Books About Colors
When it comes to concept books, books about colors abound. But here are the books about colors you and your child will actually want to come back to again and again:
This is one of the most quintessential children’s concept books because it has a little of everything: colors, repetition, rhyming, an opportunity to make animal sounds, and a great rhythm to the words as you read. Over time, your child will memorize the order of the animals, and you can build their memory skills by asking them to say the color and animal before you turn the page.
In this book of colors, the narrator muses over their favorite color and steps through each one, but on each page instead of one blot of color, you get a rich tapestry of hues. Some of the color squares are designed to let light shine through, which creates an interactive component for kids to play with the colors. What I love about this book is that it inspires a sense of wonder about the world!
This cute story proves that concept books don’t have to be dry and boring. This book teaches your child about primary and secondary colors but with a cute storyline to keep them engaged. If you enjoy this book, be sure to check out the others in the same series: Mouse Count and Mouse Shapes.
Books About Opposites
These books about opposites create fun opportunities for building your child’s vocabulary while also helping them to understand how objects and ideas relate to each other.
This book takes a playful approach to teaching opposites, which is the best way for your child to learn. Plus, nothing could be cuter than hearing your young child say words like “opaque” and “transparent.” If you like this one, be sure to check out Llamaphones and Rhymoceros by the same author.
This book of opposites mesmerized every one of my kids when they were young. They loved learning about all the different animals, and it’s a bonus challenge for them to pick out the animal that’s repeated from the previous pages.
This is one of my favorites by Leslie Patricelli because it’s hilarious and actually kind of useful for showing a young child what they should and should not put in their mouth. While this book covers just one opposites pair (yummy and yucky), you can branch out to her other titles for more fun with opposites, like Baby Happy Baby Sad and Quiet Loud.
Concept Books That Cover Multiple Concepts
If you’re looking for a book that will cover a few areas of knowledge at the same time, you can’t go wrong with these children’s concept books.
This is a counting book and book about colors rolled up into one, with lots of opportunities for your child to build their vocabulary about the world around them. The illustrations are beautiful, and I love that all the object names are given on each spread. This is definitely a book your child can continue to grow with. When one of my toddlers reached preschool age, she would sit and count everything in this book on her own! If you love this book, pick up Pattern-tastic Treasure Hunt next.
This story of creativity starts with a simple square and shows that if you tear it into triangles and punch holes in the triangles, it can become a “fountain that babbled and giggled and clapped.” Each spread brings a fresh idea until the story comes full circle at the end. After sharing this with your child, go ahead and bust out some paper and art supplies so they can play with shapes and cement what they’ve learned. As an added bonus, this book also covers colors and the days of the week.
This book and others by author Roger Priddy are awesome for building your child’s vocabulary, and this one specifically focuses on the concepts of counting, colors, and shapes. The best part is you don’t have to read anything! Just have your child point at a picture, you say the word, and repeat until your child is done looking at that page and flip it.
Bonus! More Concept Books for Kids
These concept books don’t fall into the traditional categories like alphabet or counting, but they still introduce kids to important ideas and concepts. Plus, they’re fun to share with your child!
What a fun way to start exploring size and measurement with young kids! On each spread, you see an animal – or a part of an animal – at the actual real-life size. For example, for the gorilla you see the actual size of the gorilla’s hand, and your child won’t be able to resist holding their own hand up to compare the sizes. For kids who love dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, grab the companion book Prehistoric Actual Size.
I almost hesitate to say this book is about time zones because it’s so much more than that. Yes, the book explains the concept of time zones. But more than that, it’s a beautiful display of the interconnectedness of humans all around the world.
What are your favorite concept books for children? Share in a comment below!
Kelly Holmes, Certified Parent Educator
I'm a mom of four, a Certified Parent Educator, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. I believe if you want a loving parent-child relationship that will last into the teenage years and beyond, the time for nurturing that kind of relationship is now. The good news? All you need is 10 minutes a day. Start here »