Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Importance of Sorting Activities: Why & How : Montessori & Traditional.

Why Sorting?

Children have a natural desire to make sense of their world, to create order in a world that seems largely out of their control. For that reason, sorting activities often attract children. In fact, many children will start sorting things without even being taught. Many parents have likely walked into a room to see their young child putting their blocks or other toys in piles based on color or some other category. Montessori sensorial sorting work takes this inclination a step further, teaching the child to organize their world using all of their senses while also working of course on careful discrimination. So why is all of this so important you may ask? Maybe, for example, your child already knows his colors and his shapes. Outside of the Montessori philosophy (we'll get to that in a moment) why is it so necessary to sort them?

Sorting is a beginning math skill. It may seem that a big chunk early math is about learning numbers and quantity, but there's much more to it. By sorting, children understand that things are alike and different as well as that they can belong and be organized into certain groups. Getting practice with sorting at an early age is important for numerical concepts and grouping numbers and sets when they're older. This type of thinking starts them on the path of applying logical thinking to objects, mathematical concepts and every day life in general. Studies have even been shown that kids who are used to comparing and contrasting do better in mathematics later on. I'll talk about the seemingly endless ideas for general sorting in a bit.

Maria Montessori's sensorial work uses "sorting" in specific ways that work to use all of the child's senses, one at a time, in order to refine them. The goal is to train the brain to create more organized thoughts and ways of retrieving information. Montessori also recognized how much children appreciated order in their worlds (a large piece of her main philosophy) and how important it was for them to create this order independently. While the works given to the child are teaching them valuable skills, they don't seem to notice what they're learning. It is delightful work for them. Montessori also believed that when children are given a work that uses senses that they hadn't noticed or are new to the child, the learning and awakening that occurs is just as important. What is learned isn't just kept in isolation with a singular work; the child uses the sensory information and intelligence gained and applies it to other areas of his life, furthering his adaptations and experiences within it. Beautiful!

The categories formed by Maria Montessori for sensorial works are based on thermic sense (detecting differences in temperature), tactile sense (touch), auditory sense (discriminating sounds), olfactory sense (noticing differences between smells), gustatory sense (refining and discriminating taste), baric sense (refining differences between weight or pressure), stereognostic sense (judging shape and size through touch alone), and the visual sense (detecting similarities and differences using the eyes which also develops muscular sense). For a great list of these official works and how to present them, I suggest The Montessori Primary Guide.

While We have some of the more official visual works in our home such as The Pink Tower and (mini) Cylinders, like many other Montessori at home parents, the vast majority of our works have been homemade and Montessori-inspired. While I wish that we were able to have more official work in our home at the moment, I'm happy with what we've come up with so far!

How To Start Sorting

To sort, you child needs at least two different types of objects. A younger child will likely require less categories (sorting by two types) while an older child often can handle three, four or more. Some concepts may be more difficult for a young child while others too simple and uninteresting for an older child. Know where the child is and what they're capable of through observation and of course, trial and error.

Slowly demonstrating each sort for the child before they try it on their own is important. After observing what you've done, the child is free to try on their own. In Montessori, the child's errors are not corrected by adults, though you should observe to see if the sort will need another demonstration next time the activity is done. The child may not immediately catch their errors, but likely will in time, especially if the work is as self-correcting as possible. This helps the child develop decision making skills and confidence. As long as the child seems eager to try and isn't throwing or abusing the materials (a sign that the work is too hard or too easy), let them work. There is much to be learned from noticing and correction your own errors. As hard as it is not to step in and correct (I struggle with this too), much of the value is lost when an adult intervenes.  

To mix things up, encourage your child do some of the more tactile works blindfolded. Other sorts can be combined with fine motor work utilizing small object pincer grasp, tongs or tweezers. Your child can put the objects into sorting trays, bowls, cups, egg cartons, divided containers, paper lunch bags or simply line or stack them up. It's suggested, but not necessary, to label each category with a word card. You may discover, especially in the younger child, that your child prefers a certain way of sorting over another. For example my child greatly prefers to sort into some sort of container. Go with what works and attracts your little one!

If you wish to make your sorting more Montessori-inspired, be sure to isolate the one category in which the child is to sort by. For example, if the child is to sort by color, make all of the colored objects the same type of object (i.e. just puffballs, not puffballs, M&M's and marshmallows). Trying to use pleasing objects that are wooden, well-made and in good condition are preferred as a way to attract and entice the child. If possible, try to use something new that the child has never come across before in order to expand upon their experiences. Try to keep the sorting containers identical in size, color and shape.

Ideas For Sorting

What you use for sorting all depends upon the age and ability of the child, as well as their interests. You often don't need to buy anything fancy either! If you have "real" items, such as animal figurines or food, these should typically be used rather than magazine cut-outs or photographs or online games/apps. Sorting which allows the child to use their hands to handle real-life objects is much more beneficial for all-around learning. If using photos (which do have their own importance for pictorial learning), making (link) or purchasing (Montessori Print Shop) nom-enclature cards can be extra-beneficial due to their aesthetics and the bonus of the word being printed underneath.

First, here are some of the ideas we've implemented in our home so far:

Here are just a small fraction of the many other ways your child can sort: 

Ideas for items to sort by color:
Lacing beads
Dyed macaroni
Colored Marshmallows
Animal counters
Poker chips
Deck of cards by black/red
Sort laundry by lights, darks and whites
Pipe Cleaners
Garage Sale stickers

Ideas for items to sort by shape:
Unit blocks
Shapes cut from cardboard or paper

Ideas for items to sort by size:
Sort towels, dishcloths and washcloths
Cut pipe cleaners or straws (length)
Dowels (width)
Clothing (baby, child, adult)

Ideas for sorting by temperature:

After a trip to the store, empty the bags and let the child sort by temperature (freezer, fridge, pantry items) 

Ideas for sorting by weight:
Fill same size containers with different amounts of liquid
Choose objects from around the home to sort by heavy/light 

Ideas for sorting by sound
Fill canisters or jars (contents concealed) with various objects (two of each)
Fill balloons with different sounding objects (two of each)

Ideas for shorting by category:
Pictures of Living and Non-living items
Different types of seeds or grains
Different types of beans, pasta or nuts
Types of plants
Types of stuffed animals (cats, teddy bears etc)
Water, air or land animals
Types of dinosaurs
Sort real or plastic food by food groups
Sort by a few specific numbers or letters
Photos of day and night scenes
Sort playing cards by suit
Types of toys (puzzles, art, blocks, animals)
Sort trail mix contents
Healthy food/junk food
Food we eat with fingers vs silverware
Any kind of stickers
Books (animals, numbers, letters, vehicles)

While I am not a Montessori teacher or professional, all of the information above has been taken from my own reading and researching on the Montessori method. The non-Montessori information comes from my training/education, general knowledge, and experience working with young children.

Linking up with Living Montessori Now and  1+1+1=1


  1. LOVE this post! I fb, pinned it, and tweeted it. I think sorting is one of the easier activities to set up for your child and one of the most beneficial. =)

  2. Wonderful post! Here's my question: What do you do if you present a sorting task and the child does it wrong? Would you take it as a sign that the task is too complex and try to simplify it or put it away for later?


    1. Try again the next day with something more basic. For instance take objects of 2 colors and start the piles. See if your child can finish. Use that as an introduction to sorting. Play again later but do not start the piles. See how that goes. When it makes sense to your child try something a little trickier like 2 different shapes.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing my post in so many places "The Activity Mom"! Much appreciated and glad you enjoyed it!

    Glimmersnaps: You're asking some really good questions! In Montessori, children are not typically corrected when making errors, but allowed to try again and again. The materials are as self-correcting as possible (the child can notice their own errors) so that the child can be independent. If the child doesn't notice the errors right away but wants to keept trying I would let them. If a work is too difficult for the child they likely won't pick it or (as often is the case with a todler)they will throw or mistreat it. Before the first sort it is reccommended to slowly demonstrate the sort yourself and then let the child try. Keep demonstrating each time until the child has the hang of what to do. The process of making errors and noticing them/correcting them by themselves is very important. I think I need to add all of that to the post. Thank you for a great question!

  4. Many thanks for this awesome post. It is going to be very useful in our home!!

  5. Thank you for this very interesting entry. I follow your blog with much interest. My daughter is 14 months old and I have tried many forms of sorting activities, however it seems as though she is not quite ready yet. What age would you say is the ideal age to start basic sorting work? Thanks!

  6. You're welcome Babmina felice! I'm so glad!

    Adeline: 14 months does sound a little young for sorting, but every child is different so it's really hard to say without knowing her. I think I noticed that Ty was starting to sort puffballs on his own at about 18 mos and so I started with color baskets (linked above) at 19 mos with two colors. He is also very visual and notices differences easily. Some kids may have other areas of strength. I would observe and keeping trying here and there to see if there's interest. If so, cool, but if not, no worries. There's plenty of time! I think it's great that you're already thinking about this! :)

  7. So much good information here. I didn't know about sorting according to weight or temperature. As my youngest is ready we will try that!!

  8. Awesome post, Jen! You've done so many great sorting activities, and I love the way you showed lots of ideas in this post. It's also nice that so many of your activities are homemade, since that's what works for most homeschoolers. Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page:

  9. Thank you for an enjoyable evening of reading and inspiration. I wish I had the space to organise as you do. The ideas have been great and my pinterest "to do" board and "children and education" boards are briming with ideas.

  10. Hi- have granddaughter and she has been sorting different candle shapes ( i have a set of bright rainbow candles in hall in different shapes) and the min she comes into the house she starts sputting the square ones together, the phyramid ones together etc .... and she plays different combinations of these on her own .... loved your blog - great ideas and wonderful to re educate myself with regard to sorting through the senses ... had not forgotten but great to have the old memory jogged so quickly ! thank you - Granny gru x grandchild

  11. I would like to thank for creating this interesting blog and i got a good knowledge to read your blog.

  12. Hi
    I do teacher training workshops. I am writing to ask permission to use the photos of sorting in a Power Point Presentation. I will credit your site and provide your URL.
    Please respond to:
    Also, there is a typo - "shorting" by category. Just thought you might like to know :-)

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  13. Thanks for sharing! Valuable post! I just Quoted you in my last blog post about Sorting Activity For First Grade. Feel free to have a look on

  14. Hiya fantastic blog post!

    I am just wondering where your references are? I would like to follow up on some of the information you have here for my own research. Thanks!

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