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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”.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Learning Resources Smart Snacks for Sorting

For these Smart Snacks activities by Learning Resources, children sort, but by other attributes vs circles, squares, triangles, etc.

Smart Snacks Doughnuts are similar to memory match, with players turning over two doughnut toppings, trying to make a match. For young children, you could place all the toppings on the doughnuts, and have the child select matching pairs of doughnuts. Set includes 12 doughnuts and removable toppings.

Smart Snacks Chocolates are 13 candies in six shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles, and ovals. Children match the fillings in the center of the candies.

Smart Snacks Trail Mix consists of 25 pieces: 4 each pretzels, peanuts, chocolate chips, raisins, and crackers, and 5 M&M-like candies. Pieces can be sorted into piles, or can be laced onto one of the provided strings.

Super Sorting Pie

My brother just bought the Super Sorting Pie. I think it’s going to be great. It can be used for sorting fruits by color into the five pie spaces. Alternatively children can sort like fruits: putting the bananas together, the berries, the apples, etc. Use the plastic tweezers for fine motor tool use practice.

Super Sorting Pie

Sort same fruits together, such as sorting bananas and apples.

Sort same fruits together, such as sorting bananas and apples.

Canned Foods, Boxed Foods, and Produce

I have the food set to the right. I separated out all of the fruits, vegetables, boxed food, and canned foods, and have kids separate them into baskets.

It’s a really big set, and I have used the pieces for other therapy activities, so it’s a pretty good investment. I’ve had kids do some really good pretend play. I have a lot of the pieces in my pinto bean sensory box.

Sorting Food

Sort food into boxed food, canned food, or fruits & vegetables

Sort food into boxed food, canned food, or fruits & vegetables

Memory Match

Classic children’s memory match is an example of sorting by attribute other than shapes. The child could sort the cards into picture pairs. As a starting activity with a very young child, I would select about six pairs of pictures, none of which are very similar. Place six cards face up. Give the child the other cards one at a time to match in pairs. I might build up to 10-12 pairs before transitioning to “concentration” style play.

For typical play with cards turned down, I would again select six pairs, mix them up, then arrange them face down. Players take turns turning over cards two at a time to try to make matches. Add additional pairs into play as child shows readiness for increased difficulty.

Garanimals Memory Match

Garanimals Memory Match.  Have young children pair up pictures.

Garanimals Memory Match. Have young children pair up pictures.

Sort Buttons, Small Beads & Other Small Items

You can gather a wide array of inexpensive items, such as buttons or beads, for sorting by color, shape, size, or other attributes. Select items to be less similar, for a younger child, or more similar to be more challenging, depending on the skill level of the child.

I have a small packet with a fair variety of buttons, but I did not have very many of each color and type of button. I chose buttons to represent size- small, medium, and large.

I have a few colorful animal beads, with dogs, cats, roosters, fish, turtles, etc. They can be sorted by color or animal.

I friend gave me a sizeable bag of plastic beads, in a huge variety sizes, colors, and shapes. I have many of the styles in an array of colors, for sorting by shape.

The same friend gave me a bag of colored Lucite plastic pieces in a variety of shapes. These are great for sorting. They are also very light, so they won’t weigh my therapy bag down.

Sort Utensils

Utensils can be sorted into spoons & forks

Utensils can be sorted into spoons & forks

Sort Household Items

With a little imagination, you can find plenty of simple household items for children to sort.

You could have your child sort by size. They could separate wash cloths and hand towels, separate large and small cans, or separate large and small books.

Another activity to sort by attributes, using common household items would be sorting spoons, forks, and knives. You could use flatware, or plasticware.

Lucky Charms

Sort Your Lucky Charms!

Sort Your Lucky Charms!

Sort Breakfast Cereals

Have your child sort breakfast cereal by color, shape, or size. Colored cereal like Fruit Loops or Cap’n Crunch All Berries can be sorted by color. Lucky Charms could be used to sort by shape. Mix two cereals, such as Honey Combs and Mini Wheats to sort by shape or size.

Sort Carrots, Bones, and Bananas

If you’re familiar with Lakeshore Learning, you’ll know they have extremely cool stuff, but very pricy. We have a Lakeshore Learning Store in San Antonio, and I like to go in and check out their stuff.

They are very good about leaving samples of things to tinker with. Some of their items really stick in my mind. The “Hungry” activities fall into that category.

They have Hungry Bunny, where you feed the bunny carrots, Hungry Dog, that you feed bones, and Hungry Monkey that you feed bananas. Large plastic tweezers are included for feeding the animals, which is a good fine motor tool use activity.

Some of our area HeadStart programs had these. The kids loved these.

Sort Farm Animals

I love the Sorting Farm that I saw on Amazon. I have put off getting it because it was $30, but now I notice a lot of children’s activities including this one are cheaper, so now’s a good time to buy!

This toy works on number concepts and sorting. There is one chicken, two sheep, three pigs, and four cows.

Sort Bugs

Another Lakeshore item I love, but have put off buying because of the cost, is the Scoop-A-Bug. Use tongs to separate ants, grasshoppers, lady bugs, and bees. I could not find it on Amazon. A friend had this for her little girl, and has it in storage. She’s working on digging it out so I can post a photo.

Ring Stackers & Nesting Cups

Ring stackers and nesting cups are classic children’s toys. They help children learn the attribute of size. Children have to recognize the relative differences in size, which is the largest, etc. in order to stack rings.

Nesting cups, blocks, barrels, etc. can usually be stacked or nested. Children must recognize differences in sizes for these toys too.

If the child does not yet recognize the size differences and cannot do the activity, hand him/her the pieces one at a time in the correct order. Progress to offering a choice of two for the next piece. Offer the correct piece, and another piece that is a couple sizes larger or smaller, so it will be a little easier.

Ring Stacker, Nesting Cups, Nesting Barrels

Nesting/stacking blocks, ring stacker, nesting barrels.

Nesting/stacking blocks, ring stacker, nesting barrels.

© 2012 rmcrayne


Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 16, 2012:

OH YES, but you should absolutely order Secret of Childhood, Absorbent Mind and The Montessori Method as soon as you can! ( All by Maria Montessori in paperback... not expensive.) The key is to let the child work with his own intent, and interest which is being directed by NATURE within him. It is an unconscious unfolding of development. Birth to 6 is the psychic embryo. The child is forming a capable mind. I hope you will get her books. Sense of order is not the sense of neatness... it is the absorbing of the world as it is. I hope you will look into her discoveries. She was like Christopher Columbus... ahead of her time. Maybe You can understand that the " world is not flat!"

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on January 16, 2012:

Kathryn I'm going to try to educate myself on Montessori principles.

kelley thanks commenting, and thanks for recognizing how much hard work I put into this one.

kelleyward on January 09, 2012:

Wow! It looks like you put a lot of time and effort into this hub. Great examples of ways we can spend time teaching our children about shapes in natural environments. Thanks again!

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 06, 2012:

All of these activities help a child's understanding of the life around him. To put them in his environment is what Montessori calls a "help to life."

Thanks for sharing.

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