The Dish on Discovery Sorting

Jess Wardell

“It’s better to know how to learn than to know.” -Dr. Seuss

It has been said, by somebody somewhere, that curiosity fuels the soul and drives innovation. So, if curiosity is the activating step, then discovery is the action piece of this process.

Our children are natural born explorers. From the moment they take their first breath, they are seeking to make sense of the world around them. Categorizing faces, relationships, experiences; it is all part of their development. Eventually, they enter the ever fun “why” stage. You know the one. The one where it doesn’t matter what they see, what you say, or where they are, they want to know WHY. It’s a fun stage. It’s a fun stage. It’s a fun stage. (The mommy repeats to herself as to try to really believe it.)

If the tiny humans that we devote so much of our heart and lives to have an innate lean to investigate, then let’s capitalize on those opportunities for play and learning. Discovery sorting is an easy and fun way to encourage early independent play, develop curiosity, and foster creativity, without pulling your hair out as the parent. Always a win.

There are many forms of discovery sorting that can take place to transcend various age groups. For our earliest explorers, simply fill a bowl, a Tupperware, or that left over Amazon box sitting next to your trash can, (just me?) with various household objects or toys. When my biggest little was littler, I put cotton balls and blocks into a bowl. I would sit with her for a few minutes and just have a conversation that sounded something like this:

“Look at these soft white cotton balls. It feels fuzzy and I can squish it. They look like clouds. Look here is another one. These look the same. Now, look at this cube. It looks different than the cotton ball. It has different colors on its sides and it is hard when I touch it.”

I would take a few of each object out of the bowl and put them into two separate piles on the floor. Then, I would put everything back into the bowl and say “you try!” I would sit with her for a few minutes and watch her inevitably just dump the bowl or throw the blocks. Because, let’s be honest, this IS what will happen the first few times.

But then, I would do the hardest thing for my type A personality to do. I let her be. Although her exploration and sorting didn’t meet my expectations, she was still exploring. Experiencing. Making connections. Discovering. And was learning to do it independently, with just a little guidance from her mama.

As the littles get bigger and have deeper connections, we can take discovery sorting to the next level. You can fill that same Amazon box with different colored objects. Then set them free. The littles may sort by color or in a completely different way. Here, is where the role reversal happens; ask them why. Give them the opportunity to share with you their view of the world. Don’t correct it. Don’t try to guide it. Don’t change it. Let it happen. You can later model how you would do it with the sole purpose of showing them how two people can see the exact same thing in completely different ways. Imagine if all adults learned this at such an early age. What would our world look like today?

You can go on a walk through your house, outside, or even stroll the aisles of Target (can I get an Amen?) and help them to find different shapes or letters or colors. The opportunities are endless and don’t require assembly, buying things, or much brain power (which for me, is running at about 10% by the end of the day). Structuring activities that give our children intentional opportunities to organize their view of the universe may actually encourage us to broaden ours.

Discovery Sort Ideas by Age:

Little Littles:

  • Colored cotton balls- start with 2 colors
  • Different shaped household items
  • Rice Sensory Bins- Put rice in a tupperware and other similar items (block, balls, linking letters, rocks) and have kids fish for them

Bigger Littles:

  • Letter hunts- but 2 or more letters your child is already familiar with in a box (magnets, written on post-its, flashcards, bathtub letters)
  • Nature Sort- TOGETHER collect things from outside, throw in the box, sort any way and explain WHY (size, texture, color)
  • Toy sort- collect a random assortment of toys and allow them to sort any way and explain WHY
  • Store Discovery Stroll- Running errands? As you walk the aisles, use language you know they are familiar with to play a game of eye spy from their birds eye view in the cart. (I spy with my little eye something that is…)
Jess Wardell
Jess Wardell is a 8 year veteran teacher in Cobb County. With a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education and experience in both preschool and the elementary grades, Jess has a passion for helping children discover and cultivate their own innate love of learning. Her favorite job is being mom to her two girls, Norah and Emma. Drawing on her experiences within the classroom and her own home, Jess desires to help other families discover the joy of engaging in meaningful experiences that encourage both learning and creativity in simple and effortless ways.

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