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Sorting Things Out

During their second year of life, children start to notice enough similarities between objects to group them together. For example, the two dogs next door are in the same category as your family pet because they all bark and have fur. Next, toddlers learn to label the categories with words, such as "dog." As milestones go, sorting may not seem as profound as speaking in sentences, yet putting objects into categories is the basis for language, says Abbey Griffin, Ph.D., senior associate at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based educational organization that focuses on children under 3.

Sorting also lays the groundwork for learning math: Only when a child can group dogs together can he understand how many there are at the neighbor's house and how many of those are brown and how many are black.

While your child will start to sort on his own, you can reinforce what he's learning with some fun activities.

Color my world
Laundry may be a chore for you, but it's new and exciting to a toddler. She'll be happy to help you put all the colors or T-shirts in one pile and the whites or socks in another.

Cooking up fun
Bake a batch of cookies together, using three or four different cookie cutters. Then use colored sugar to decorate the goodies by shape (yellow for the stars, red for the hearts).

Natural selection
Going to the beach? Help her collect a variety of seashells and then have her put them into piles by texture, size, or color.

Out of the bag
As you unload groceries, ask him to help you separate the paper products from the canned foods, the fruits from the vegetables, the frozen items from the baked goods.

Business and pleasure
If you have a home office, your 2-year-old will love "assisting" you. Give him handfuls of child-safe items like folders, Post-its, and fat markers, then put him to work sorting them according to size or color.

Picture-perfect
Order double prints when you develop film and give your toddler the extra photos. Show her how to group them according to who or what she sees: grown-ups, animals, children, her friends, or relatives.

Scavenger hunt
Give him a bucket and a mission: Find red (or green or blue) items around the house. To make sure his search is fruitful, you may need to plant a few objects in advance or accompany him.

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