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Classifying and sorting as a foundation for

mathematical thinking

What does classifying and sorting involve?

Classifying is the distribution or arrangement of objects
in a group, according to a class: I have put these
buttons in this groups because they all have two holes
in them. Whereas sorting is the separating of objects
based on a rule: Now I will move these buttons over
here because they are big and I will put theses ones
over there because they are small (Macmillan, A.,
Young children show a natural interest in and
enjoyment of mathematics. Research evidence
indicates that long before entering school children
Mathematics helps children make sense of the physical
and social worlds around them, and children are
naturally inclined to use mathematics in this way.
Sorting and classifying help children understand the
nature of mathematics as the authors of NCTMs
Principles and Standards point out, Classifying and
ordering are natural and interesting to children (NCTM,
2000, p. 37). Sorting and classifying objects not only
teaches children about attributes and relationships, but
also promotes thinking logically and applying rules.
Sorting and classifying exercises can also provide
children with models for organizing things in the real
world, such as putting blocks away or setting the table
for dinner.
(Retrieved from:

Learning theorists tell us that a large part of the

cognitive development of young children is driven by

Why is classifying and sorting important in

the Early Years?
Simple sorting and classification are fundamental concepts
that help children to organise their thinking about real world
(Reys, 1995). For example, with the development of simple
sorting and classifying, children begin to differentiate between
plants and animals, day and night, circle and square, and one
and ten. Children begin to apply logical thinking to objects,
events and mathematical concepts they encounter (Platz,
Donald., 2004).
Sorting and classifying objects helps children begin to notice
how items are alike and different, and creates an awareness
that is vital for math learning. (Geiser, T., 2003).
How can parents teach their children the skills of
sorting and classifying?
Most importantly, make it a point to pay attention to
how things are alike and different as you go about your
daily routine. The seemingly simple task of sorting the
silverware when it comes out of the dishwasher is a
valuable early sorting task for a pre-schooler (and a
fabulous first chore)! Use the objects in your house as
teaching tools and it makes the learning more
meaningful for young children. We use treasure boxes
filled with 'kid stuff' and notice how things are alike and
different, says Grace Davila Coates, Program Director
of Family Math (Lawrence Hall of Science, University of
California at Berkeley) and co-author of Family Math for
Young Children. Kids who are used to comparing and
contrasting do better in mathematics."

Try a few of these quick and easy sorting activities and

your little one will be well on her way to mastering this
important math skill!

All Sorts of Chores

Looking for a little help around the house? Have your pre-schooler help
you with these household tasks while getting in some sorting practice!

After a trip to the grocery store, have her sort the food according to
where it is stored: freezer foods, refrigerator foods, pantry foods and other
household items. If she is unsure of where something goes, have her give
it the touch test to see if it is cold and remind her that cold foods belong
in the refrigerator or freezer.

Every parent loves help with the laundry! Have a sorting party and
sort the clothes by colour! Put all the towels together, the sheets together
and separate anything else that you wash separately. Most children love
to help, and this is a great way to get them started on helping around the

Sock sort! The dreaded task of sorting socks is just a big math game
for pre-schoolers. Have your child help you sort the socks by size or family
member and then by colour. Matching up pairs is also an excellent way to
practice visual discrimination skills. Visual discrimination is the ability to
see the differences in similar objects, and will come in handy as children
begin to discriminate similarly shaped numbers and letters.

Clean up time provides wonderful opportunities to practice sorting.

The simple task of putting the blocks in one container and the crayons in
another is actually an early lesson in sorting and classifying. If possible,
set up your childs play area in zones. For example, art materials, books,
puzzles, and dolls all should have a special place in the room.

All Sorts of Food

Snack time and meal time are excellent times to sneak
in some learning! Try a few of these simple activities
and playing with your food will become a catalyst for
learning about sorting.

Anything that has more than two colours can be

sorted. Have your child sort cereal, fruit snacks, small

crackers or candy. Sorting by colour is the perfect

beginning sorting activity for pre-schoolers.

After your child has mastered sorting by one

attribute, have her try sorting by two different
attributes. For example, she can sort the trail mix first
by the different kinds of foods included (nuts, fruit,
candy) and take it a step further by sorting the nuts
into cashews, almonds and peanuts or the candy into
red, brown, and yellow. Use an egg carton or muffin tin
as a perfect sorting tray!

Gather up the play food or get some real food from

the kitchen (after a grocery trip might be a good time
for this). Food can be sorted in many different ways,
healthy and not so healthy foods, foods we eat with our
fingers and foods we eat with silverware, even "foods I
like" and "foods I dont like"! Your child will be able to
help you come up with many options for sorting once
she gets the hang of it.

All Sorts of Fun

Young children learn best through play. Take notice of the toys around you
during your next play session with your child and sorting will become a
natural extension of her play.

While playing with the cars, notice similarities in several cars. Lay
out a few pieces of coloured paper and ask your child to drive the cars
onto the parking lot paper that matches the car colour. Cars can also be
sorted by types: trucks, race cars, motorcycles, and emergency vehicles.

Sort dolls by hair colour, eye colour, size, clothing colour or type of
clothes (dresses, pyjamas, pants).

Sort blocks or beads by size, shape and colour.

While playing with a deck of cards, try sorting them by suite,
number or colour.
Sorting is really all about observing, comparing and contrasting objects. As your
child becomes familiar with this early math skill, she will begin to sort objects
naturally, setting herself up for all sorts of success in math as she enters school!
(Geiser, Traci, 2003)

ACARA: Sort and classify familiar objects and explain the basis for these
classifications. Copy, continue and create patterns with objects and
drawings (ACMNA005)
(ACARA. (2013).
EYLF: Outcome 4: children are confident and involved learners - Children
develop a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry,
experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating

For more information from the Illinois Early Learning website,

click here.
Example one: Sorting & classifying
Block building offers one example of plays value for mathematical
learning. As children build with blocks, they constantly accumulate
experiences with the ways in which objects can be related, and these
experiences become the foundation for a multitude of mathematical
conceptsfar beyond simply sorting and classifying. The two pictures
below shows children producing objects and structures with blocks. They
have created abstract designs by manipulating blocks to create a pattern
and shape.

Picture above shows children

constructing six beds for their babies.
Creating 6 beds for six babies.

Picture above shows a child

constructing three car park spots
using blocks for the three cars she will
later park under.

Later, children kept using the same sorting system

(classification) and telling educators how they sorted. The
above two experiences provided children with opportunities to
develop logical reasoning skills as well as demonstrate
divergent (independent) thinking. This simple block play
allowed children to express ideas that were important to them.
From this play experience children were engaged in sorting and
classifying shape to the number of object.

Example two: classifying and Sorting

Three different children were sorting a pile of buttons of varying shapes,
sizes, colours, and materials in three different ways. One child placed all
the round buttons in one group and all the odd shaped buttons in a
different group. The second child placed all the metal buttons in one group
and all the plastic button in a different group. And the third child sorted
the buttons according to different colours. There was no particular
organisational system in their play. No one child sorted the buttons in the
same way. One particular organizational system is not important.
What is important is that each child accurately sorts according to his or
her organization system and is able to explain his thought process.
Retrieved from(http://www.schoolsparks.com/early-childhood-development/math-numberawareness)

A wonderful way of incorporating nature is to have natural

materials, like in the image to the right. Children have an
opportunity to classify and sort natures wonders.