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3 Ways to Teach Kids Grown-Up Skills While Sorting

Family in Kitchen Recycling Paper and Plastic family math sorting and collecting activity
In addition to recycling, encourage your child to think about how to reduce waste in your home in sustainable ways. | FangXiaNuo/Getty Images
These activities help young children learn about the world around them and can help them boost key early math skills.
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Grown-ups rely on mathematical thinking and problem-solving all day without even realizing it. Simple tasks like sorting recycling, choosing which vegetables to purchase based on what’s grown locally or collecting items around the house that can be donated become second nature.

Here are three simple ways to grow your child’s knowledge of sorting and collecting while teaching them how to be more engaged people.


Recycling is just one of many ways we can work to deal with waste, but focusing on reducing it so there is less of a need to recycle is key. However, recycling is still part of our efforts and is great for teaching little ones about sorting.

Rinse out and remove any sharp tops from cans before beginning. Next, place a variety of items that can be recycled on the table or ground. Depending on where you live, make sure to figure out what materials are recyclable. Do the research together and show them a simple video about why we recycle before you start, such as the “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” video “Why We Recycle.” As you watch, ask your child questions such as, “Can you find something that’s made of plastic?” “How do you know it’s plastic?” and “Can you find paper?” “What do we use paper for?” Ask your child which category do you have more or less of (e.g., plastic vs. metal) and why. For example, you might say, “I notice we have five cans because we eat canned soup all the time. But we only have two plastic bottles because we try to bring our reusable bottles when we go out.”

Encourage your child to think about ways to reduce waste in your home in sustainable ways, such as making homemade soup once a week and freezing it, or making homemade lemonade instead of purchasing a plastic bottle. Extend the learning (and fun) by holding onto some of the recycled materials to create bottle cap art or cardboard creations.


Young children can put their knowledge of sorting and classifying to use by going through old toys, clothing and household goods and separating them into piles of items they’d like to donate. You can donate them to a mutual aid fund, neighbor or community organization.

Help your kid sort through the items using these examples of categories:

  • Things I’d like to keep / things I’d like to donate
  • Things I play with a lot / things I don’t play with
  • Clothes that fit / clothes that don’t fit
  • Soft toys / hard toys
  • Big toys / small toys

Once you’ve gathered the things you want to donate, invite your child to notice which items are of similar sizes, shapes, colors or textures and encourage them to put the items into groups based on similar/different attributes. For example, soft toys might go in one basket, while hard toys go in another. Large items might be left out, while small items, such as LEGO blocks can be placed in small bags for easy carrying. Talk to your child about why it’s important to support members of your community through donating what you’re no longer using.

Sort What You Eat

Invite your child to notice the size, shape, color and texture of fruits and vegetables when you’re making dinner by asking your child, “Can you help me find the broccoli to make the stir-fry?” “What does the broccoli look like?” Then, ask them to help prep the meal and encourage them to taste different fruits and veggies along the way while pointing out attributes related to what they see, smell, touch, hear and taste. For example, you can group fruits or veggies that have similar characteristics (e.g., broccoli and cauliflower have a similar texture even though one is white and the other is green).

Accept their ideas and encourage them to think about how fruits and vegetables can be grouped in different ways. Extend the learning by taking your child to a local farm or watching videos at home. For example, in the “Molly of Denali” video “Growing Veggies in Alaska,” we explore how different plants grow in different places and the impact of community gardens. As you watch, ask them to think about connections and classifications around the food we get from gardens and farms; for example, milk, cheese and ice cream all traditionally come from cow’s milk, while carrots, parsnips and beets are root vegetables.

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