Teaching Kids Classification What is it and Where does it go?


Understanding how two items, ideas, or concepts are the same and different is critical in understanding content at school and the world in general. As scientific beings, we compare and contrast constantly, this is how we formulate our understanding of our world. From infancy we form our most basic understanding through a series of “me/not me” experiments. As the baby starts to comprehend his limited control over everything that is “not me” he also starts to construct a mental picture of what all those “not me” objects are like. Hot or cold? Wet or dry? Dangerous or safe? Delicious or dog fur? This basic reality testing becomes ever more complicated as the child ages. By the time we are talking about teaching them classification skills, they have thousands of words and a pretty intricate view of how the world is ordered. In order to continue to build upon and clarify their increasingly complicated mental reality, we must give them the best classification tools we can.

What is verbal classification? Verbal classification is the ability to state how two things are the same. We may ask how a cat and a mouse are the same. A young child is likely to say they both have legs, or whiskers, while an older child will state they are both animals. The similarity may be attributes, function, or overall category. The goal is for the child to be able to answer the question: “How are these the same?” at an abstract level. For instance, a horse and pig both have 4 legs ( a concrete similarity) but they are both animals (the more abstract similarity). As a child progresses through middle school and high school, he should be able to classify abstract ideas with abstract responses. These concepts become critical in responding to the many “compare and contrast” tasks that are presented in most academic subjects throughout middle school and high school.

In my experience, children are often able to define two items and explain how they are different, but they have difficulty describing how they are alike. As children age, we expect them to provide abstract classifications rather than the concrete responses that are typical of younger children. We classify verbally (“tell me how a jelly bean and a peanut butter cup are the same”) and nonverbally (sort these buttons into groups by color) and often the a child’s ability to classify verbally is quite different than their ability to classify nonverbally.

So how DO we develop the classification concept?

  • With very young children, play games that involving “matching”, which is essentially classification. I play a lot of Care Bears dominos with my 3 year old grandson because it involves matching pictures of the bears. The Milton Bradley memory games are also good for matching (as well as memory). You can play the memory game with the cards face up and only use for matching, eliminating the memory component.  This puzzle game is not nearly as expensive as the original 1980s game pictured above and would also work for practicing classification. My daughters and I played the Animal Families version and what works very well about this version is that it allows children to see animals that are related (Mama and baby) so they are “the same” only different. Anything you can do to help children walk that fine line of similarity, helps to build these concepts. A game like this is great for little kids, the ideas in this post can be used for a wide range of ages from pre-school right on up through middle school. Parents can be helping develop their child’s conceptual world their whole childhood lives. Classification and similarities are great ways to do this because as your child gets older, your conversations simply become about more difficult subjects. Even with a high school aged child, you can initiate conversations (depending on the parent’s area of expertise) comparing two works of literature, two athletes careers, two works of art, two scientific principles, two periods of time in history, and so on.
  • A good Non-Verbal Classification Activity for young children is to sort blocks, buttons, crayons, stuffed animals, toys, books, of clothing, by attribute, beginning with only one attribute. For example: ask the child to sort blocks by color; when she masters sorting them by one attribute (such as color), add a second attribute and have her categorize by both. (big blues ones together, big red ones together, little blue ones together, little red ones together, etc.) Here is an attribute block desk set that you could use to work on this. (A quick search showed these cost more on Amazon as of this writing.) But a basket of laundry or a box of crayons works just as well. Whatever you have around the house can work.
  • Scrapbook! (for young children) Create a scrapbook with pages for different categories and have child cut out pictures and paste in the appropriate category (vehicles, furniture, flowers, animals, etc). Your child is filing the pictures you provide into the categories you provide. When they mastered that, put a different spin on it.
  • Provide your child with a pile of pictures (stickers, magazine cut outs, clip art from google, etc.) Have your child make collages that group the pictures together by similar use. “What do scissors do? What does a saw do? Can we group them together on a cutting collage? What else would go on a cutting collage? What else cuts?” (knives, lawnmowers, razors) “What other collages can we make? Things that clean? Things that we use to make food? Things that write or draw?” Have your child look through the images and come up with categories within which  3 or more images would fit.
  • Verbal Classification Activity: Ask the child how two items are the same, and begin by accepting concrete similarities (Cat & Dog– both have fur, both have ears, both have legs). Then move toward developing the more abstract classification (both are animals, both are pets).
  • For an Older Child: As your child becomes more successful, begin asking how two more abstract items are the same (how are an electrician and teacher alike? answer: both are careers)
  • Same and Different: Encourage Mental Flexibility by talking about how two things are the same, and then how those two things are different. This focuses on classification but also encourages your child to reason, compare and contrast.
Donna B. Amberman of Capital District School Psychology specializes in independent evaluations, child development, ADHD & second opinions in Albany, Troy, & Saratoga, NY.
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