Sorting & Patterns

Sorting and pattern recognition are among the most fundamental math concepts, and when approached in a rigorous way, they are also linked to stronger critical thinking and analytical skills. Children already look for patterns and analyze their environment whether or not they are aware of it. As parents, we can encourage this kind of thinking by starting conversations that will guide our children to think deeply about their environment and look for patterns in unexpected places. 

Patterns All Around (all ages)

Materials: an observant mindset

  1. Talk to your child about patterns in the real world.
  2. Point out certain patterns that you notice and how they are used.
  3. Ask your child to find or talk about patterns.  See where the conversation takes you and respond as though you are really interested in what your child is noticing.  Your child might notice things that aren't traditional patterns, but encourage the observation and don't worry as much about the "right" answer.

Make it more challenging:

  • Look for patterns in city planning: architecture, elaborate features, bridges, roadways, public transportation maps, parks
  • Observe patterns in nature: weather, animal migration, heart beats, geysers
  • Discuss patterns in behavior: cause/effect, shopping habits, "people watching"


What's the Rule? (ages 5+)

Materials: paper, crayon or marker (option: color disks, shape blocks, other counters)

  1. Create a pattern using pictures or counters.
  2. Ask, "What's the rule?" or "What pattern do you see?"
  3. Say, "Now it's your turn to make the same kind of pattern in a different way." 
  4. If your child needs guidance, you can encourage using different shapes, colors or pictures to create a similar pattern.  If you started with an AB pattern using circles and triangles, then your child should make an AB pattern that looks different (ex. red and blue, apple and orange).

Make it more challenging:

  • Make the patterns increasingly more complicated as your child seems ready.
  • Use numbers in your patterns (1,2,1,2,1,2) or (2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
  • Ask, "What do you think comes next in the pattern?" 


Pattern Keychain (ages 3-6)

Materials: beads of different colors or shapes (3 or more different kinds), string or plastic bead cord

  1. Spread the beads out and talk about different attributes (colors or shapes)
  2. Tell child, "Today we are going to make keychains with different patterns."
  3. String the beads on and say the name of the attribute to keep track of the pattern. Ex. Red bead, blue bead or circle bead, triangle bead, square bead.
  4. Tie the string or cord off at each end to make a keychain that can be tied onto keys. Your child can make these as simple gifts for people.  

Make it more challenging:

  • Introduce the labels of AB, ABC, ABBA, ABBC, ABCC or other patterns.  
  • See if your child can create a particular pattern that matches one of the labels.
  • Challenge your child to make a new type of pattern and label it with letters.

Sorting Stuff (ages 3-6)

Materials: assorted objects (containers, keys, buttons, mail, rocks, pine cones, etc.)

  1. Spread out objects on a surface (table, floor, etc.)
  2. Tell child, "Today we are going to sort these objects into groups with the same color."
  3. Repeat activity using size, shape, or any other category that you or child notices.

Make it more challenging:

  • Once the objects are sorted, have child find a new object to put in each pile.
  • Encourage conversation about why an object belongs in the pile.
  • Sort the objects and have child guess how you sorted them.


Musical Patterns (all ages)

Materials: none required, different types of musical instruments optional

  1. Talk to your child about using music to make patterns. (ex. stomp, clap, stomp, clap)
  2. Practice the pattern together and talk about how to keep it going.
  3. Dance around or sing about what you are doing. Be as silly as you like, making this a fun experience will help your child retain a stronger memory of the experience and help connect musical patterns to picture or number patterns.

Make it more challenging:

  • Repeating Patterns (ex. ABC, ABBC, ABBA) - Create more complicated patterns similar to the examples above. Write them down and let your child extend the patterns.
  • Growing Patterns (ex. skip counting)- Create growing patterns with numbers, but add in a steady beat such as clapping or stomping while you say the patterns together or have your child extend the pattern that you start.
  • Relationship Patterns (ex. 1 cow has 4 legs, 2 cows have 8 legs) - Make up a song with your child to represent a relationship pattern. Be silly and encourage your child to repeat the song or write the song down to sing again later.