Young children love grouping and sorting activities, so teaching your child these valuable skills can be fun and easy to integrate into their play.
Here are 12 hands-on sorting activities for preschoolers, toddlers and kindergarteners. Adapt them to your child’s level of understanding.
What are Sorting Activities?
A sorting activity – or grouping activity – is any activity that requires a child to identify what a number of items (whether pictures or objects) have in common.
The child has to find the common property that forms a group or class of items.
For a young child, rather than “grouping common properties”, they are answering the basic question: “Which things belong together?”
Unlike the skill of matching, which I explained in a previous article as “find the one that is just the same,” items that look different may still be part of the same group, or category.
An example of this is a pile of blocks of different shapes and sizes that share the property of having straight edges, as opposed to another pile of blocks that have curved edges.
Grouping is also different to pairing, because as the name suggests, it is sorting items into groups of more than two.
Why is Sorting Important for Preschoolers?
Sorting develops reasoning and thinking skills in young children, even though they may not yet be able to verbalize why they are putting certain objects together.
In order to group and sort, children must discriminate, reason, analyze and select in order to formulate groups.
Children also learn that there is usually more than one way to group items.
While toddlers and preschoolers are in what Piaget termed the pre-operational phase of development, learning to sort is one of the skills that prepares children for entering the concrete operational phase. [source]
In this later stage, children will rely on grouping skills to understand classification systems of science, as well as set theory in mathematics. [Hendrick 1990: 362]
Classification allows people to organize knowledge.
How Do I Teach My Child to Sort?
Sorting is a skill that can be taught through simple play activities in the early years.
Here are some things to consider when teaching your toddler or preschooler about sorting.
While you should plan some grouping activities to practise the skill, make sure to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities as they arise, such as grouping while tidying up.
Try wherever possible to relate activities to real life, such as unpacking the groceries and sorting the fruit from the vegetables.
Integrate sorting activities into other activities.
Make sure the activities are suitable for your child’s level of understanding. Activities that are too challenging do not foster learning.
Using Concrete Experiences
Use hands-on learning as much as possible. Sorting blocks according to their properties is a much better way to teach the concept of sorting than to offer a worksheet with pictures.
Worksheets are not age-appropriate during the preschool years and offer little value.
In order for a child to grasp the concepts you are teaching them, it’s important to use language throughout the activity to further their understanding.
Firstly, use these kind of questions to explain to children what grouping is:
- Can you show me the things that belong to the same family?
- Show me which things belong together?
Talk about what they are doing while they are doing it so you can put words to their actions and understanding of the concepts.
- It looks like you are putting all the red ones and all the blue ones there.
- It looks like you are putting all the fruits in this basket and all the vegetables in that basket?
Young children may not be able to verbalize why they have put things in the same category as they may just intuitively know.
By asking questions about why they belong together, such as “why is this group different”, children can learn to verbalize their reasons.
There are different ways to present sorting activities, based on your child’s age and current level of understanding.
A toddler won’t be able to sort picture cards into groups of fruits or vegetables, or tell you what the common attribute is, but an older child can.
Make the activity easier by telling your child what the group is, and asking them to add to or remove items from the category:
- Put all the fruits in this basket
- This basket should only have fruits in – take out the ones that don’t belong.
Make it more challenging by asking the child to identify the common quality himself by saying “show which things belong together.”
How a child categorizes will depend on their age and maturity.
When sorting buttons, for example, younger children may sort according to colour or size, whereas older children may sort according to shape, material or how many holes the buttons have.
This post contains affiliate links for educational products that I personally recommend. If you purchase through one of them, I earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Read the disclosure for more details.
12 Classifying and Sorting Activities for Preschoolers
Here are some simple sorting games and activities to try at home or at school with young kids.
1. Tidy Up Songs
Use tidy-up songs to practise categorizing daily – at home and at school.
Teach children to pack items away in groups that make sense – construction play toys in one area, books on the shelf, crayons and pencils in their containers, etc.
2. Animal Sort
Use animal cards (like these) or make small cards with cut-outs of animals and ask children to sort them according to groups.
3. Doll House Rooms
Using a dolls house, ask children to sort the furniture according to which room it belongs in.
4. Household Objects
Take several items from two rooms around the house and ask your child to group them. Here’s an example:
- Bathroom – toilet roll, hand towel, toilet brush, soap, mirror
- Bedroom – pillow, teddy bear, item of clothing, bedside lamp
Sort buttons any way you can – by colour, size, shape, number of holes or material (plastic, metal, etc.)
Sort them into plastic containers or egg cartons. If you don’t have a set of these at home, get yourself this one. There are so many things you can do with buttons.
Sort out the block collection by colour, shape, or curved vs straight edges.
If you have various materials – such as foam, plastic and wood, mix them together and sort them that way.
7. Clothing Sort
If at home, group your child’s clothes together – by colour or by pattern – dots, stripes, etc.
If at school, tell children to sort themselves into groups based on what they are wearing. Guide this a little if necessary.
8. Play Store
Use or make a pretend grocery store and sort out the items as they go together – cleaning products, bakery items, canned items and fresh fruits.
9. Picture Cards
Use traditional picture card games and sort the pictures.
For this activity, use a memory card set (like this printable one from my store) and get your child to make their own categories.
10. Catalogue Pics
Have an old catalogue or newspaper insert lying around from a toy store, grocery shop or furniture store?
Cut up the items and group them by category.
Sort beads into categories by colour, shape, size and material (plastic, metal or wooden).
Sorting beads and buttons makes a great fine motor activity too, especially if you pick them up with tweezers.
12. Fruit and Vegetable Sort
Use plastic or wooden fruit and vegetable toys and categorize them into fruit salad or vegetable soup.
See if your child can categorize them in other ways – such as veggies that can be eaten raw and those that must be cooked, or group them by colour or shape.
13. Odd One Out Game
The odd one out game is a great activity for older preschoolers, to teach them to identify which item or picture does not belong in a certain group, and for what reason.
I hope you’ve found some new ideas of sorting activities for kids.
Would you like a year of done-for-you, ten-minute activities to teach your 3-5-year-old through play? Get your copy of the Learning Through Play Activity Pack for only $27.
Hendrick, H. 1990. Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York.