Parents may think counting and recognizing numbers are the nuts and bolts of preschool math. While these are important skills for young mathematicians to master, building a foundation for complex mathematical thinking begins in the early childhood years. 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.

How does a parent go about teaching their child 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 preschooler (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 preschooler 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 color! 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 house.
  • Sock sort! The dreaded task of sorting socks is just a big math game for preschoolers. Have your child help you sort the socks by size or family member and then by color. 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 child’s 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 colors can be sorted. Have your child sort cereal, fruit snacks, small crackers or candy. Sorting by color is the perfect beginning sorting activity for preschoolers.
  • 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 don’t 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 colored paper and ask your child to drive the cars onto the “parking lot” paper that matches the car color. Cars can also be sorted by types: trucks, race cars, motorcycles, and emergency vehicles.
  • Sort dolls by hair color, eye color, size, clothing color or type of clothes (dresses, pajamas, pants).
  • Sort blocks or beads by size, shape and color.
  • While playing with a deck of cards, try sorting them by suite, number or color.

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!

More preschool sorting and classifying activities:

Find out more with our Essential Guide to Preschool Math!