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Understanding Same and Different (Classification)
Authors: Jandy Jeppson with Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE

Did you collect anything when you were a child? Do you have a collection now? When you collect things, you need to decide what belongs in the collection and what does not. Children who create a leaf collection or a bug collection are learning other things, too. They are learning how to classify leaves and insects by putting them into groups. When you plan meals for your family or your childcare program, you are using classification, too. Deciding whether a food is a bread, vegetable, or dairy product is classification.

Putting together things that are the same is called classification. When children classify, they are using information about what is the same and what is different. This learning happens over time. At first, children classify items based on how they look, sound, and feel.

Children first group things by appearance. Young children may believe that a ball and a head of lettuce go together, because they are both round. A child may learn the word “doggie” after petting one. The next day he may see a cat and say “doggie,” because they are both animals with four legs. An apple and a stop sign go together, because they are both red.

Young children also learn that things can sound the same or different. Babies learn very early to recognize people’s voices. As they get older, they learn that some musical notes are the same, and some are different. They like poems, because some of the words sound almost the same.

Later, children learn that some things belong together because of what they do or how they are used—their purpose. An umbrella and a newspaper could be classified together because they can protect you from the rain. A birthday card and a newspaper may be the same, because you can read both of them. But they don’t look alike.

Sorting things in a simple or complicated way

Children follow a predictable pattern when they learn to sort. You can observe that children first develop basic sorting skills. With time and practice, they develop more complicated sorting skills. When they are very young, children group things that look very similar. They usually concentrate just on color or shape. By three years old, most children can sort objects into groups that belong together in the real world. For example, children can put toys that belong together in the same group. They can put all of the toys that are musical in one group, all of the kitchen toys in another group, and all of the tool-type toys in another group.

Children sometimes get confused when they look at just one feature of an object. Children can be asked to sort blocks or beads by both color and size. That is, you may ask them to put the large red and blue beads in one container and the small red and blue beads in another. Most children are able to do this by ages 4 or 5. Before they learn this, they may get confused and put the blue beads together and the red ones together. As children are learning about sorting they will sometimes need help.

Why should I care if children learn to classify or not?

Saving time
Classifying saves people a lot of time. Think of a filing cabinet with hundreds of files. Information is easy to find when it is organized in a way that makes sense to the user. The office manager of a doctor’s office organizes the patient’s files alphabetically by their last name. Any file that is needed can be found almost instantly. But if hundreds of files were scattered and stacked without any order, it would be very hard to find a file you needed.

Children can also save time when their things are classified. It helps them to have all of their Legos together and all the play dishes together. It helps them to know that their underwear is in one drawer and their pants are in another drawer. Then they do not need to look through big piles or boxes to find things.

Being practical
Adults need to classify many things in everyday life:
     • What kinds of clothes are appropriate for the weather?
     • Where are things you need in the grocery store?
     • How do you use the yellow pages?
     • Which toys are for which kids at the park?

Children can learn to do these things, too. They can learn how to sort things, help their parents or childcare providers, and prepare for their own adult lives at the same time. You and the parents can work together to help children learn these things.

Staying safe
Classifying helps people be safe. Children need to learn that some categories of things are safe and some are not safe. This is more efficient than teaching them that many individual things are safe or unsafe. For example, a container of parmesan cheese looks similar to a household cleaner. A child who sorts things only by appearance could be confused.

This is why many parents will put bright stickers (such as “Mr. Yuk” stickers) on unsafe things. That way their children know that it is dangerous for their bodies. When a child sees a green can of Comet cleanser under the sink that looks like the green can of parmesan cheese in the refrigerator, the Mr. Yuk sticker will help him know that it is not safe.

Talking with parents

Classification happens naturally every day. When parents ask what their children are learning, you could talk about classification. You could tell parents how their children are learning to sort things. As parents look around your childcare setting, they may wonder what the different learning centers are for. You could post signs explaining what children are learning at each center. Another good way to talk to parents about classification is to send activity ideas home.

Most parents already do things with their children that help them to learn about classification. However, many parents do not realize that their children are learning how to do this. As a provider, you can help parents understand how they can turn everyday activities into learning experiences for their child. Some times they can do this are setting the table or cleaning up a room.

Help parents realize that it is important for them to say out loud what they see their children doing. When their children are exploring and discovering, the parents can “narrate.” Give the parents examples of how to do this. For example, if they see their child sorting blocks into piles of red and blue, they can say what they see. They could say, “Wow! I see that you put all of the red blocks together and all of the blue blocks together.” Tell parents that this helps children think about what they are doing.

Tell parents about the classification activities you are trying in your program. Ask them what they try at home. Maybe you can each use some of the ideas you share together.

Classification problems for beginners

As children are trying to figure out what is the same and what is different, sometimes they make “rules” that are too broad. For example, you may have seen a two-and a half-year-old who loves balls. That child may think that any round object is a ball. So when she sees an orange, she may pick it up and say, “ball” and then throw it across the room. She is putting the orange in the “ball” category. The “rule” she made was too broad. Rule: “round things are balls”

As a provider or parent, adults can say to her, “Yes, the orange is round, just like a ball, but you may not throw the orange.” The adult can go on to explain how balls and oranges are alike and different. As she learns more, the child will be able to put oranges and other things into the correct category.


Children like to practice classifying and sorting. Young children can sort shells, cookies, doll clothes, and many other things. It is important for children to have collections. School-age children can collect rocks, coins, or stickers. A child can sort rocks by size, shape, color, or type. Coins can be sorted by year, value, or size. Children can rearrange their collections over and over into different groups. This is good practice for children. It is good for them to come up with possible categories and to try to fit each object into a category.

Ideas for activities and lessons

     • Give children different kinds of beans, pasta, or buttons. Ask them to sort the items. Watch what the children do and
       comment on their sorting “rules. “ For example, you might say, “Oh, I see you have the small buttons together, the
       medium buttons together, and the large buttons together.”
     • Think of three groups of people (such as men, women, children), foods (such as dessert, breads, vegetables), furniture
       (such as chairs, tables, beds), or other items. Ask children to find pictures from magazines that fit each of those
     • Yahooligans has many sites about collecting stamps, insects, and coins. There are also sites about collecting leaves,
       shells, fossils, stickers, yo-yo’s, candy wrappers, etc.
     • Rader’s Kapili has information on biology and astronomy for children who are in third grade or older. Information on this
       site helps children to learn about different types of scientific classification.

 Same and different

Go to:  • Shapes


For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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