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Activities for Young Children- Sorting by Shape and Other Attributes

Rose Mary, an Occupational Therapist since 1987, is experienced with pre-term infants, early intervention, school therapy, and home health.

The first attribute that young children are able to discriminate is usually color. They recognize and sort by colors before they can sort by shape, size or other attributes. I have thoroughly covered learning colors in my hub Pre-School Activities- Sorting by Color.

Children are able to recognize shapes before they can identify shapes. This means they can group circles together, squares together, etc., before they can answer “What shape is this?” or “Show me the square.”

Use lots of repetition and modeling for young children for learning shapes. If they randomly guess, then they are showing us that developmentally they are not there yet for naming shapes. You can engage the child in activities such as sorting by shape, and say things like, “You put all the circles together.” You can name the shapes when they place shape pieces in puzzles or shape sorters.

I am sharing activities that I have used with young children as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist for learning shapes and other attributes. I am also presenting other activities on my wish list for learning about attributes, and sorting by shape and other attributes.

My sister has picked up a lot of toys and games for me to use in therapy from Goodwill, but it took a lot of effort over time. When I’m looking to buy a new therapy toy, I’m looking for a good price. If something can be adapted for different activities with different ages and functional levels of children, then sometimes I’ll pay more. Also, if it’s something both my brother (also an Occupational Therapist) and I can use with clients, then we’ll go in together and pay a bit more. So the additional activities I’ve selected get my seal of approval in one respect or another.

Variety of Activities Sorting by Attribute

Large beads, animal beads, laminated shapes, memory match cards

Large beads, animal beads, laminated shapes, memory match cards

Activities covered in this hub:

Sorting by shape:

  • Laminated shapes
  • Shape puzzles
  • Large colored beads
  • Shape stackers
  • Shape sorters
  • Parquetry Blocks
  • Story & activity books about shapes

Other Toys for Sorting by Basic Shapes:

  • Oreo shape sorter
  • Egg shape sorter
  • Cupcake shape sorter
  • Sorting boxes
  • Row sorter

More Toys for Sorting by Shape and Other Attributes:

  • Noah’s ark
  • Doughnuts
  • Chocolate Candy
  • Trail Mix
  • Fruit Pie
  • Toy Foods
  • Memory match
  • Beads and buttons
  • Cereal
  • Utensils
  • Small animal figures
  • Carrots for bunnies, bones for dog, and bananas for monkey
  • Animal barn
  • Bug sorter

Laminated Shapes

Sort cut-outs by shape. You can make this activity yourself. Buy brightly colored poster board. Cut out circles, squares, and triangles about 3” to 5”. Laminate pieces for durability, and trim to shapes.

If the child differentiates colors, use this to help with getting started on sorting shapes. Start with the yellow squares and blue circles. Place one square and one circle about 12” to 18” apart, then place 1-2 additional circles and squares as an example. Have the child place 4-5 circles and squares. As the child progresses, you can then try multiple colors for each shape.

Shape Puzzles

What kid doesn’t like puzzles?

For very young children, I would start with a puzzle of 3 to 5 shapes.

Start with circle, square, and triangle, and maybe rectangle and oval.

For children with visual impairments, choose a puzzle with a plain solid background board, and bright colors for the shapes. You want to have high contrast between the colors of the puzzle board and the pieces. For example, brightly colored pieces, and a light colored board. A patterned background would be confusing. Avoid anything that looks “busy”.

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Shape Puzzle

Child playing with shape puzzle with knobs. Large pieces and good contrast with colored pieces and light colored background.

Child playing with shape puzzle with knobs. Large pieces and good contrast with colored pieces and light colored background.

For children with fine motor delays or poor manipulation skills, choose puzzles with large shape pieces, and large knobs.

Puzzles are also available with basic shapes incorporated into simple pictures, such as a house with square, triangle, rectangle, and oval. Or a train with basic shapes like circle, square, and triangle.

Sort Large Beads by Shape

I have the Melissa & Doug Primary Lacing Beads. This set has 30 large beads, ¾” to 1” in 6 colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. There are 5 shapes of each color. Have the child sort the beads into shapes: squares, spheres, barrels, etc. The set includes lacing string, so you could have the child make a necklace with only the barrels, only the spheres, etc.


There is also a Melissa & Doug Bead Sequencing Set available with wood strips showing patterns for imitating. My brother (also a Pediatric Occupational Therapist) just got this from Amazon. Sad to say I’m not impressed. I don’t think the colors or shapes of the beads depicted match up very well to the actual beads. There is one feature I like. There are dowels that stand up in the set. Children would have to reach up to place beads, which is a nice upper extremity movement for body awareness and even strength and endurance. You could create a sequence of beads for the child to copy.

I also have large colorful beads from Dollar Tree. There are fewer beads, and good for sorting by color, but not so much for sorting by shape except maybe for children who are just beginning to learn about shapes. All of the squares are yellow, all the barrels are blue, etc. They are also not good for stringing because the insides are not sanded, and the string gets caught and will not go through.

Shape Stackers

Shape stackers are pretty classic toys, at least in Occupational Therapy clinics. For children just starting to recognize shapes, I would choose a simple stacker with a different color for each shape, and a single peg for a center hole in the shape.

Some stackers indirectly incorporate number concepts. There is one peg for the circle, two for rectangles, three for triangles, and four for squares.

If the child has difficulty with sorting by shape, show or tell him or her where each piece goes, but let the child place the piece. In my experience, most children will still feel like they are being successful at the activity, and feel proud.

Shape Sorters

For a very young child, or one who is just beginning to recognize shapes, get a shape sorter with only three or four different shapes, such as circle, square, triangle, and maybe star. You can find sorters with only three to four different shapes, but two or three of each shape. I have selected three of these in the Amazon capsule on the right.

I have the Melissa & Doug shape sorter to the right. It has three different shapes on each side. That’s 18 different shapes! I probably would not have chosen this, but I got it for $2.50. Surprisingly, I have used it with low functioning children. I place the cube, and give them the three pieces for the top panel. Then I rotate the cube, always giving the child the three pieces for the top panel.

I have a dollar store sorter that works okay, but it is pretty flimsy, and it had a piece missing when I got it home. I have another sorter from Goodwill with about half the pieces missing. Guess what? The kids don’t seem to know or care that all the pieces are not there. I treat one autistic boy that I think would have noticed, and it would definitely bother him, so I’ve never used it with him.

Melissa & Doug Magnetic Pattern Blocks

Melissa & Doug pattern block are magnatized and stay in place.  Comes with picture plates to copy.

Melissa & Doug pattern block are magnatized and stay in place. Comes with picture plates to copy.

Pattern Blocks

Pattern Blocks

I started out with a parquetry set made from cardboard that I got from Ross for $5. Most of my Occupational Therapy clients are six years old or younger, or functioning at a level less than six. The pieces moved and shifted very easily, and was just a huge frustration for the kids and for me. I went magnetic and have never gone back.

I have the Melissa & Doug magnetic wooden parquetry set on the top right and have been really pleased with it. It has 12 pictures that you create your design on top of, and the magnetic plate holds the blocks in place. My only complaint is that the slender diamond shapes are not slender enough for a couple of the designs, so it is not possible to match the template design perfectly.

The designs are a bit complex for extremely young children, but Melissa & Doug have a much simpler set. It is on the right. There are 10 simple designs to copy, and the pieces do not have to be placed precisely.

Story & Activity Books About Shapes

I have several children’s books about shapes. Likely there are hundreds of books available. Some books are simply about shapes, while others are children’s stories that incorporate shapes into the story. Reading about shapes in a children’s book, and discussing the book can be a stress-free way for a child to learn about shapes. Many books use repetition of shape concepts to aid in learning.

I also have children’s activity books, including several wipe off books that feature shapes and strategies for learning shapes. These books tend to offer opportunities to color, trace, and draw shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles.

Oreo Matching Middles, Egg, and Cupcake Shape Sorters

Oreos, Egg, and Cupcakes Shape Matching Toys

Two Occupational Therapist colleagues of mine have the Oreo Matching Middles, and love, love, love them. A physical therapist commented on the Amazon website how she used the Matching Middles because they really kept kids entertained and distracted while doing physical therapy activities. This set has 12 cookies, with each cookie having two halves with matching shapes that fit together.

The Express Egg Shape Sorter and Smart Snacks Cupcakes are similar to the Oreo Matching Middles, but there are only six eggs and six cupcakes. Eggs have two halves with matching shapes. Cupcake tops lift off and have shape that fits into matching hole in the same shape in the base.

The eggs and cupcakes may be better for younger children, as the six shapes are basic shapes. Obviouslly with 12 different shapes, some of the Oreo shapes are going to be more complex. The Oreos however can be “grown into”. Present the four to six easiest shape pairs to young children. As they master basic shapes, introduce additional, more complex shapes.

Exploring Shapes Sorting Boxes

Boxes with Shapes

The Exploring Shapes Sorting Boxes are from Lakeshore. There are four 5-inch boxes in bright colors, and in the shape of a circle, square, triangle, and rectangle. Inside each box is four items (made of durable, washable vinyl) of that shape.

I really like this item, but it is quite pricy. It could probably be reproduced to some degree. You could take small square boxes and find inexpensive items in the four basic shapes.

Sort Shapes by Row & Color

Row Sorter

The Row Sorter is similar in principle to the shape stacker and shape sorter. There are five shapes in three colors. Horizontal rows are sorted by color, and vertical rows are sorted by shape. The base has depressions matching the shapes.

Noah's Ark Shape Sorter

Noah's Ark Shape Sorter

The Noah’s Ark shape sorter is a take on the classic shape sorter. But instead of circles, squares, and triangles, the shapes are animals, like giraffes, lions, and monkeys. Of course there are two of each animal.

Sorting & Matching Games from Learning Resources