Sorting and grouping

The thing with children is they change so quickly and if you blink, you feel like you missed the moment when a major milestone was achieved. For example, Rory used to say he wanted a hangaber for dinner. Alan and I thought it was adorable, and did nothing to encourage the proper pronunciation of the word! But then one day, we noticed he was asking for hamburgers instead of hangabers, and the moment was gone.

This week, I was playing with Oliver and noticed that he now knows some of his colours! This is a very recent development and one we’ve been anxiously waiting for. Rory knew all his colours by 2 years old, and Oliver is almost 3 and was showing no signs of progress; but then, just like that, he got them all right! This is so exciting for me as a mathematician because it now opens up so many more informal sorting activities!  

“As the children’s vocabularies increase, they will be able to label and describe how and why they are sorting and grouping things.” (Charlesworth, 2012)

Here is an example of Oliver engaged in naturalistic play. Notice how I commented any time he knowingly (although usually unknowingly!) put things into groups. Also notice he learned a new word (rectangle!) and now has additional sorting power for next time!

Because Oliver is now ready for more informal instruction on sorting, I started looking for articles about this important stage of development and was surprised when I couldn’t find many. I couldn’t even find agreement on what strand of math sorting falls into! In some books, classification was stuck under geometry, but the content was directed at a higher age level. For example classifying polygons versus nonpolygons; or triangles with the same area versus different areas.  Another resource I looked at, clumped sorting under data analysis because organizing data into groups is important for graphing. I myself, would have linked classification with logic and pre-algebra, because sorting involves reasoning and logical thought. It is also the precursor to addition (putting groups together) and subtraction (taking groups away).

In addition to the controversy over what strand this falls into; sorting and classification only really appears in the pre-k to k curriculum, and as a result it is minimized in the teaching resources or believed to develop naturally. This surprised me because classification is such an important skill not only at school, but also in our daily life. This skill, although it may appear basic, is the basis for further logic and reasoning. It provides an introduction to graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams and to me, it is a life-skill that may even precede executive functioning ability! (New research project?!) Think of the importance of learning how to sort and classify in this day and age, with all the information we have access to.

Now that I have convinced you of the importance of this seemingly natural ability, I want to share with you how to nourish this skill in your child. In the early years, classification activities fall into three categories:

Stage: Your responsibility:       Example:
Naturalistic: Provide free time, material and space
  • Blocks, cars, farm animals, nature things
Informal instruction Provide comments or tasks that identify or encourage sorting
  • Your picture has lots of red.
  • Can you separate the forks from the knives?
  • Could you put your cars in the car bin and your balls in the ball bin?
  • I see you’ve arranged your dolls from smallest to largest.
Guided instruction Give specific objects and guide classification strategies
  • Find some things that are___.
  • Tell me why these belong together.
  • Sort these into groups, how did you decide?
  • Is there another way to sort these?

 Rory has a larger vocabulary than Oliver and a larger understanding of the universe. For his sorting activity, I used guided instruction. You’ll notice he came up with interesting ways to sort things: by function (button, sticker), by colour (red, blue, yellow, green) and by category (animal, vehicle, shape).  I guided him by encouraging him to think of different ways to sort his materials; however, it was ultimately his decision.

Next time, I might choose different objects that force him to make different decisions. For example, choosing all cars but different sizes, or choosing all art mediums (canvas, paper, felt etc.) and let him sort by texture, or all natural objects and have him sort by common features. I would also provide objects that relate to different content areas. For example, objects that float or sink (science), pictures of workers and different materials (social studies), or sorting plants into edible and non-edible. The possibilities are endless! The only thing to keep in mind is that classification activities should follow the same progression as manipulatives (see my post on this here), so start with 3-D objects and then move to cut-outs and then to pictures.

Although I couldn’t find much on how to teach classification, I found bucket-loads of activities that involve sorting.

Click here  and sort through these for starters!

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