Sorting and classifying are basic skills taught to children as part of preschool and kindergarten math programs. These activities require children to organize items into groups based on a common characteristic such as size, color, shape, texture, or flavor and also explain why they grouped the items as they did. Sorting and classifying are skills that a child will use in all areas of his life at home and in school as he puts away toys, organizes clothes, arranges a locker or empties the dishwasher, for example.
Children first learn how to sort items. For example, a young child can likely separate a group of plastic figurines into two groups (vehicles and animals, perhaps) before he is able to state the distinction that cars have wheels and animals are living things. As children gain comfort sorting, they are encouraged to explain their thought process in sorting by identifying and naming the characteristic that determines the groups.
Recognizing groups of objects requires logical thinking, an ability that will be important as your child makes other decisions. Also, understanding the relationship between the different groups and being able to discuss that relationship hones analytical skills.
Tips for introducing your child to sorting and classifying
One of these things is not like the others. To help your child learn to sort, start by introducing a group of four items in which all items but one share a common characteristic. For example, you could line up three of your shoes and one of your child’s shoes and ask him which item does not belong with the others. Once your child has picked the one that does not belong, ask him to explain why the other three items go together.
This basic activity will introduce your child to the concept of sorting. When he understands that items can be grouped based on a common characteristic, he will be ready to tackle more complicated sorting activities.
The basic sorting and classifying worksheets will challenge your child to identify which item in a group of three or four items does not belong with the others. After your child circles the picture that does not belong with the others, encourage him to explain his choice.
In some cases, your child may select an answer that is not obvious and seems incorrect. However, if he can explain his sorting method and he has followed that method accurately, then his answer is also correct. For example, a child may look at a group of three items (a broom, a vacuum and a painter’s easel) and circle the vacuum as the item that does not belong, although the more obvious choice would be to circle the painter’s easel as the item that does not belong. If your child can explain his sorting process by stating that both the broom and painter’s easel are made of wood and the vacuum is not, his answer is also correct since he accurately followed his sorting method of grouping items based on the material of each item.
Highlight one characteristic in a large group of items. Once your child is familiar with the basic concept of grouping items together based on a common characteristic, introduce a large group of two items that differ in only one key attribute. For example, you may give your child a bowl of two cereals that have different colors but the same shape (Kix and Cocoa Puffs or Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks) and direct him to sort them according to the color. Or, you could give your child a group of salad and dinner forks and ask him to sort them according to size. Naming the defining characteristic for your child (such as color or size) will help guide your child in this beginning sorting activity.
Set out two empty bowls next to the large pile of items, which will give your child the clue that he needs to sort the pile of items into only two different groups. To help him get started, pick one item from the pile and put it in the first bowl and pick a second (different) item and put it in the second bowl.
Ask leading questions. After you have sorted two of the items into different bowls, pick up a third item and hand it to your child. As he examines it, ask him, “Which bowl does that one go in?” After your child has made his choice, ask him why he picked the bowl that he did.
As your child explains his classification method, encourage him to use descriptive words that refer to the item’s color, shape, size, texture, or whatever the defining characteristic happens to be. If your child incorrectly sorted the item, call his attention to the defining attribute (color, size, etc.) and let him try again to put the piece in the correct bowl.
Introduce more characteristics. When your child is comfortable sorting objects based on an obvious characteristic (such as color), challenge him to sort a more diverse group of items.
With a larger group of items, your child will need to make a decision about which characteristic to use to define the groups. For instance, you could have a group of blocks in two different sizes and two different colors. Your child will need to decide whether color or size will be the determining factor when sorting into two groups. Buttons are great for this purpose since they have two or four holes, come in a variety of colors, can be made of wood, metal or plastic, and can be square, circular or oblong. Also, buttons are sold inexpensively and in bulk at most craft or fabric stores.
As your child begins sorting the items into two different bowls, encourage him to discuss his reasoning behind each decision. Did he choose to sort based on color and put all red buttons in one bowl and all the remaining buttons in a different bowl? Or is he putting all circular buttons in one bowl and all the oddly shaped buttons in a different bowl? As your child articulates his sorting method, he will be honing important analytical and expressive reasoning skills.
When your child has finished sorting all the items, consider asking him to re-sort the same group of items in a different way. For example, if he initially sorted the items by size, he could sort by color or texture when sorting the same items again. Since your child already sorted the items correctly one time, re-sorting them a second time will be an added challenge.
Incorporate sorting into everyday activities. Everyday activities present wonderful opportunities for sorting. As you fold laundry, ask your child to sort his clean clothes into three piles - shirts, pants and underwear. Or, when cleaning up at the end of the day, ask him to sort his toys into two bins based on a particular characteristic such as noisy toys in one bin and quiet toys in another or rolling toys (vehicles and balls) in one bin and non-rolling toys (stuffed animals and puzzles) in another.
For older children, try the same sorting activities but do not give your child guidance about how to sort the specific items. Perhaps he will sort the clothes into the obvious groups by putting the pants in one pile and the shirts in another. Or he could sort them by color or by daytime vs. nighttime wear. When your child is done sorting, look at his piles with him and ask him to explain his reasoning to you.
Challenge your child with sorting worksheets. Sorting worksheets are a great way for your child to practice his sorting and classifying skills.
The intermediate sorting into two groups worksheets will challenge your child to sort a variety of pictures into two different groups based on a defined theme such as “nature” or “clothing.” Your child will need to carefully review each picture and paste it in the correct column.
Once your child is able to easily complete these sorting activities, challenge him to work on the advanced sorting into groups and classifying worksheets.
Unlike the intermediate sorting worksheets that specified the defining characteristic for your child, these worksheets will challenge your child to select the defining characteristic for himself. For example, animals could be categorized by where they live (on the farm or at the zoo) or by whether they fly or walk on the ground. Once your child has pasted the pictures into two different groups, the worksheets will ask him to explain his classification method.