Developing Classification Skills in Young Children

Busy schedules make it easy to overlook suggested reading or math readiness activities simply because they don’t seem to be necessary. After all, the prescribed phonic lessons and computation problems lead to obvious skills in reading and math. But those other activities may be more than just time-fillers. Many readiness activities contribute to the building of thinking skills–specifically the ability to analyze information. If activities involving observation and classification have been overlooked simply because their importance wasn’t obvious, you may find yourself filling in gaps with older children who are having difficulty moving from simple recall and summarization to interpretation of information. Spending time on these activities when children are young and eager to learn can pay off later by increasing their ability to make connections in order to draw logical conclusions and make predictions.

Activities don’t have to involve much preparation and can make a nice break between less popular lessons.

  1. Read aloud from a variety of nonfiction books written for young children that include categories. All of these books will also increase a child’s vocabulary.Books that name mother and baby animals: horse/colt/foal, cow/calf, sheep/lamb, dog/puppy, cat/kitten.

    Books that categorize animals by a place where they are commonly found: animals on/in a farm, zoo, jungle, desert, ocean, forest, etc.

    Books about seasons. These include a variety of ideas to associate with the categories winter, spring, summer, and fall.

    Books that name objects found in specific places: furniture in different rooms of the house, tools and buildings found on a farm, businesses found along Main Street, items found in various sections of the grocery store, and so on.

  2. Have children sort objects. Begin with concrete objects before using pictures of familiar objects.Begin with two objects. Ask if they are the same (alike) or different? This is usually the first classification taught formally. Matching is a common property of board games (e.g., Memory), and card games (e.g., Old Maid, Go Fish) available for the young, and games are always a fun way to provide practice.

    Once a child is able to identify objects as different, he can be directed to look for ways in which different objects may be alike. Begin by providing objects and telling the child what category to use to separate them: color, size, shape, or kind (which refers to labels such as animals, people, buildings, tools, and so on). Later, add texture and use as categories. Use is often the most difficult category for children to identify, and, so, should be practiced regularly and with the teacher’s help. “Let’s put all the things we use to write with over here, and all the things we can eat over there.”

    Attribute blocks (available from math supply stores) make handy manipulatives for classification practice. A child can begin by matching blocks that are exactly alike (the same size, color, and shape). He should be given one block and check for its match among a group of 2 or 3 choices at first. To be sure that his final selection is as exactly the same size, have him place the blocks one on top of the other.

    Then give the child a group of blocks that vary in either color, size, or shape. Begin with simple lessons that require the child to sort objects into two groups using only one property–color, size, or shape. For example, if using color, provide a group of blocks in two colors only, using a variety of sizes and shapes in those two colors. If sorting by shape, begin with a group that has only two shapes, even though size and color can vary widely. When sorting by size it is necessary to use a model–big would be “bigger than this block” and small would be smaller than that same block. Objects in the group can vary widely in size, as well as shape and color, as long as there is a model to use for comparison.

    Household items and pictures of familiar objects can be used for sorting as well. Common categories include fruits/vegetables, food/drinks, things found in the sky/on the ground/under the ground, things found outside/inside, hard/soft, sharp/dull, heavy/light, long or tall/short, big/little, round/square, wet/dry, loud/soft.

    Children can cut out pictures and paste them on poster board, drawing a dividing line and labeling each section with the assigned categories. “Things I Like” and “Things I Don’t Like,” for example.

    They can also make booklets about themselves. Provide the category at the top of a blank page, allowing them to draw or cut and paste illustrations. Categories may include my family, my pets, my house, my favorite meal, games I like to play, and so on.

    Direct lessons help the development of observation skills, but extra practice is easily incorporated throughout the day during simple household tasks. When children are asked to mate socks or put silverware away—stacking spoons together, for example—they are using their skill at observing same and different. When they help organize objects in their bedroom (that is, when you tell them what to do, “Let’s put all the books together on this shelf, and your stuffed animals on that shelf.”) they are learning to classify. Point out categories during those many “teachable” moments:

    • When cooking, refer to items not only by specific name, but by category. “We have the bowls, now we need some utensils. Let’s see, here’s the spatula and the knife. . .”Now we need some dairy products. You get the butter, I’ll get the milk.”
    • In a restaurant, discuss menu choices after mentioning categories: “What does everyone want to drink? Let’s look at the beverages.”
    • In the grocery store, point out various sections as you enter with the child so that they can observe items that belong: produce, meat, dairy, frozen foods, etc.
  3. As children seem able, encourage them to figure out the property used to put a group of objects or pictures together as a set. Remind them to look at color, size, shape, kind, texture, and use. Because this is more difficult, add this activity to lessons where they are sorting items to fit a given category. That way they are already thinking about common properties. Begin by making a group based on one of the categories they have been using during the lesson. For example, have them sort a pile of red and blue attribute blocks by color, and then sort them by shape. Now make your own group of attribute blocks and ask them to tell you whether you sorted by color or shape. Next, ask them to observe and identify the property without offering a choice. Eventually, organize items based on any of the categories studied, not just those practiced in the lesson. Encourage them to first try to figure out the property without help, but feel free to remind them of possible categories as needed: color, size, shape, kind, texture, use.

When children are finally able to identify the common property of a group without being reminded of all the possibilities, you have developed real thinkers!

For more activity ideas, refer to Kathryn’s book Maximum Math.