Whether choosing a toy in their favorite color or arranging treasures from a nature walk, children naturally gravitate toward sorting and classifying.
Drawing from my 11 years in early childhood, I’ve come to recognize the incredible benefits of this type of play. Join me as we uncover how to promote these fun STEM skills in early childhood.
- Sorting is selecting or arranging items based on shared characteristics like size, color, or shape.
- Classifying is a more advanced form of sorting where children group objects based on multiple or more complex characteristics.
- Sorting and classifying play is most beneficial when children engage in activities matching their interests and skill level, paired with an adult’s intentional modeling and prompting.
Definitions of Sorting and Classifying
Sorting is selecting or arranging items based on shared characteristics like size, color, or shape.
Classifying is a more advanced form of sorting where children group objects based on multiple or more complex characteristics.
- Putting blocks into the block bin during clean-up
- Eating only the strawberries from a fruit cup
- Choosing single-size Mega Bloks to build with
- Organizing pairs of shoes
- Finding all the small red bears for a sorting set
- Choosing all the metallic objects from the loose parts center
- Describing how some dinosaurs are meat eaters and some are plant eaters
Sorting and Classifying Activities
#1 Sensory Toys
Offer your baby a variety of textured toys such as textured blocks, sensory balls, or rattles. As your baby explores each item, describe the textures or sounds as they touch or mouth them.
#2 Texture Books
Offer your baby a touch-and-feel book. Encourage the baby to pat and explore the textures while describing the textures.
#1 Easy Nature Sort
Present toddlers with sets of nature objects, such as stones and twigs, seashells and rocks, or flowers and leaves. Encourage them to explore and sort each type into separate baskets.
Extension: Suggest building a tower using only rocks, forming a long line with sticks, or arranging leaves into a circle.
#2 Find the Toy
Fill a bin with assorted toys and prompt toddlers to locate a specific one by focusing on a characteristic like color or shape. For instance, ask, “Where is the red ball?”
Make the activity more interactive by prompting your toddler to choose a favorite toy while you do the same. Describe why you chose an object. For instance, say, “I chose the red ball because it looks like an apple!” Then, ask your toddler, “Which one would you eat?”
#1 Nature Dough Monsters
Inspire creative play by crafting nature-inspired dough monsters, sparking imagination, and introducing early classification skills in a fun, hands-on way.
Offer children play dough and nature objects such as twigs, leaves, rocks, seashells, or flowers.
Introduce a classification element by suggesting themes such as:
- Plant Monster (leaves and flowers)
- Ground Monster (dirt and stones)
- Tree Monster (pinecones and twigs)
#2 Stringing Beads
Create a process art activity for preschoolers using pipe cleaners, yarn, and an assortment of beads. As they enhance fine motor skills, you can demonstrate creating patterns and discuss the unique characteristics of different beads.
Sorting and Classifying Toys
- Stacking/nesting cups
- Bead stringing toys
- Sorting bears
- Shape sorters
- Mix and match toys
Early Literacy and Math Skills: Sorting and classifying activities help children explore similarities and differences, building a foundation for literacy and math. That is, noticing the differences between different letters and numbers.
Cognitive Skills: These types of activities build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Children learn to categorize and analyze information, laying a foundation for more advanced cognitive processes.
Early Science Skills: Engaging in sorting activities encourages children to observe and describe how objects are alike and different.
Language Development: Open-ended questions during sorting activities nurture language skills as children explain their rationale for grouping items. Children also use language to negotiate with others during small group sorting activities.
Artistic Expression: This play extends to art activities, from choosing colors and art materials to crafting bracelets and making collages. Through hands-on process art, children explore different materials, aiding them in selecting the best materials for their creations.
Matching: Identifying similarities between two or more objects or elements based on shared characteristics, such as color, shape, or size.
Seriation: Arranging objects in a specific order based on characteristics like size. Stacking cups are an example of a seriation toy.
Ordering: Placing items in a sequential arrangement or numerical sequence. This could be a child lining up number blocks from 1 to 5.
Patterning: Creating a repeated arrangement or sequence of objects, such as colors, shapes, or objects, to form a recognizable pattern. Patterning often shows up in activities such as stringing beads.
Promoting Sorting and Classifying Play
Toys and Materials: Provide a variety of math manipulatives, loose parts, and sensory-rich items with different textures, sounds, colors, and weights to encourage sorting and classifying.
Prioritize Interests: Children are more motivated to explore sorting and classifying in activities they already enjoy. Be prepared to introduce sorting concepts in areas like the block center, water table, outdoors, or during art, based on children’s interests.
Play, Don’t Quiz: Make sorting and classifying a regular part of children’s play rather than turning it into a quiz. Young children build skills through hands-on engagement. Our role as parents and teachers is to model skills, offer prompts, ask questions during teachable moments, and keep learning fun.
Be Mindful of Developmental Stage: Recognize a child’s developmental stage, understanding that sorting and classifying skills develop at a child’s individual pace. Refer to the stages of play post to better understand how children’s play develops.
Learn more about children’s math skills and find inspiration to introduce sorting and classifying play with the following resources:
Explore more about children’s play in my Types of Play post. Gain valuable insights, tips, and activities to enhance your child’s development through the power of play.