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Let’s Sort It Out!

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

Parents, need to switch up your child’s working memory practice game? This activity will have young minds sorting and switching with endless possibilities! 



Improve working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility in preschoolers (3 – 4 years) through a dynamic sorting game using colors and shapes.

Executive Function Skills Practiced:

  • Inhibitory Control: Resisting the impulse to sort objects based on older rules is a must!
  • Working Memory: Your child will have to keep in mind the rules for sorting.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: Players must switch between different rules depending on the objects being sorted.

Materials List:

  • Black and white pictures of circles and squares
  • Colored construction paper (black, white, and another color)
  • Large paper square and circle (for Levels 2 and 3)
  • Timer (optional)

Environment: Choose a large, open space for sorting

Duration20-25 minutes

Ready To Play? Game Levels and Step-by-Step Instructions:

  • Begin with Level 1 and work your way up as your child’s sorting skills grow!

  • Model correct actions to ensure players understand the rules.


Game Level 1– Color (2-3 years):

  1. Introduce: Explain that you are playing a color-sorting game with black-and-white pictures of circles and squares.
  2. Sort: Show the black and white pictures and lay out a black paper and a white paper. Instruct the child to sort the pictures according to their color, placing black pictures on the black paper and white pictures on the white paper.
  3. Switch: Introduce the “silly color game.” Instruct the child to put black pictures on the white paper and white pictures on the black paper. Emphasize that this is a fun, silly challenge.
  4. Reflect: Discuss the experience, asking questions like, “Was it easy to remember where each color went?”

Game Level 2– Shape (3-4 years):

  1. Introduce: Transition to the shape game. Remove the black and white papers and lay out a large paper square and a large paper circle.Read the story, revealing covered characters one by one.

  2. Sort: Hand out the black and white pictures again and instruct the child to sort them according to shape. Circles on the circle paper, squares on the square paper.

  3. Switch: Introduce the “silly shape game.” Instruct the child to put circles on the square paper and squares on the circle paper. Reinforce the idea that this is a playful challenge.

  4. Reflect: Discuss the shape game, asking questions like, “How did your mind remember which way to sort the pictures?”


Game Level 3– Combined Game (4-5+ years):

  1. Introduce:Combine color and shape for a more challenging game! Lay out a large black circle and a white square. Hand out the black and white pictures.

  2. Sort: Instruct the child to listen for cues. If you say “color,” they sort by color, and if you say “shape,” they sort by shape. Encourage them to switch between the rules.

  3. Switch:Change the rules dynamically, calling out “color” or “shape” at intervals. Challenge your child to adapt quickly to the changing instructions.

  4. Reflect: Discuss the combined game, asking questions like, “Was it easy to remember both color and shape rules at the same time?”


Talk & Reflect:

Ask your child different questions like:

“How did you feel when the sorting rules changed quickly?”

“How did you remember whether it was color or shape sorting”

Additional Ideas & Resources:

  • Incorporate other sorting categories, such as size or pattern.
  • Create additional levels with different objects or pictures to sort.
  • Increase the pace of rule changes and add more sorting categories.
  • For younger children, start with one level at a time and gradually introduce complexity. 

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