This classic activity lays the foundation for math skills

Young child smiling at a woman as they look through cards of shapes and colors

As your child gets closer to their third birthday, more complex elements of matching, sorting, and comparing are unfolding in their brain. These are critical pieces of cognitive development, and particularly important for math. 

Sorting also serves a broader purpose: “even our youngest children are able to recognize patterns and use categories to process new information. Almost everything we see, hear, or touch contains details that our brain processes. Without realizing it, our brain is looking for what is new, what is different, and what has changed.”*

Here’s how you can support your two-year-old’s sorting skills:

Between 19 and 24 months, your child may have started sorting based on certain simple attributes. Now, they’re better able to notice those differences, name them, and sort in more complex ways.

At 30 months, for example, your child may begin to sort basic geometric shapes.

Here are shape sorting activities to practice with your child:

Toddler sorting different colors and patterns into two mixing bowls
In photo: Reach For The Stars Matching Cards from The Free Spirit Play Kit
  • Gather 6 shapes: 2 triangles, 2 circles, and 2 squares are a good starting point, as those are the first shapes children typically learn to identify. Make sure something about each shape pair is different, whether in size, color, or something else. 
  • Put the circle into a container, then hand your child the second circle and ask them to place it into the container with the same shape. Repeat with the other shapes. If they’re able to match them all, dump all 6 shapes onto the ground and ask your child to sort: “can you put all the triangles together, all the circles together, and all the squares together?”
  • Once your child has sorted them all, you can extend the previous activity by adding more of each of the three shapes to the pile. You can also try adding new geometric shapes (hexagons, rhombuses, rectangles) to the pile, knowing that this may be a challenge.
  • Go on a shapes scavenger hunt. Ask your child to find more circles to add to their circle collection, and offer a lot of guidance: “can you find anything else that’s a circle? Circles are round [draw a circle in the air repeatedly with a finger] and have no corners. Try that plate, or the lid to the pan in your play kitchen.”

Sorting by multiple attributes is a fun challenge your child may be ready for. The Reach for the Stars Matching Cards encourage your child to sort first by shape, then by color, though not at the same time. Switching between these two types of sorting is a challenging executive function exercise. Using the same materials for multiple activities teaches your child that one set of objects can be sorted in a variety of ways.

Toddler sorting different colors and patterns on the kitchen table
In photo: Reach For The Stars Matching Cards from The Free Spirit Play Kit
  • Start by sorting the cards by shape only. The deck includes both familiar shapes, like triangles and circles, and one or two that might be new, like pentagons and stars.
  • Next, move on to color. Lay out two circles and two squares, each in matching colors and all mixed together. See if your child can group the two different shapes together: “let’s find the two circles.”
  • Next, say “now let’s find the two yellow shapes.” 
  • It’s fun to see how your child can sort without any constraints. Try asking “let’s try to find two cards that are the same” and see if they match by color, shape, both, or something else entirely 😉

Beyond teaching toddlers to sort shapes and colors, there are all kinds of sorting opportunities in everyday life. Have your child sort toy vehicles by type (trucks in one pile, cars in another, trains in a third), food by type (crackers in one pile, cheese slices in another), and clothes by owner (papa’s socks over here, mama’s socks there, your socks in this pile).”

*from Reading Rockets


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Posted in: 3-year-old, 28 - 30 Months, 34 - 36 Months, Math, Sorting, Matching, Cognitive Development, Child Development

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