Parent Prompt: How are these things different? How are they the same?

  • Toddlers/Preschoolers
  • Executive Functions
  • Sorting
Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

WHAT: This easy game can pack a big punch. Ask your child to look at a group of things and then ask what makes those things the same. Once they have come up with a list of similarities, switch it up, and ask them to tell you what makes them different.

Take a look at the picture above of a bunch of berries as an example. How are they the same? Well, they’re all berries, they’re all fruits, and they’re all sweet. They are all in the same size containers. How are they different? Some are red and some are blue. Some are smooth and some are bumpy. Some are tiny and some are big. Some containers are clear and some are blue.

The more you look, the more you see.

Photo by Soraya Irving on Unsplash

In this picture, we see another way we can play this game with toys. Sort toys, blocks, Lego pieces – whatever you can find – by color… all of the reds, the blues, the oranges, the greens, the purples get put together. Or you could sort by shape: all of the fishes, the stars, the bowls, the hearts, the buttons can go together. You can sort by size, small items in one pile, larger items in a different pile.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

WHERE: You can play this game almost anywhere. The grocery store is full of opportunity, especially in the produce section. Even in a group of very similar objects, like the tomatoes in this picture, you can find differences to talk about.

At home, your child can sort their toys or things in the kitchen. In a bookstore, you can ask these questions while looking at group of books on the shelves. At the park, you can see the similarities and differences in a group of birds or ducks. You can even play this on the subway car or bus- how are the ads similar (they all are the same size, they all have black lettering) and how are they different (some use pictures, some use words; some are informative, some are visual).

WHO: You can begin playing these games with very young children, keeping the characteristics fairly simple: size, color, texture, shape. As kids get older you can expand to more complex differences, like function, or features details, or even something like differences in meaning or intent.

WHY: Sorting into categories like this helps build the elements needed for executive function – working memory, inhibitory control, and especially cognitive flexibility. And executive function skills are those needed to plan and organize, manage emotions, and focus. This simple activity builds on these skills by encouraging your child to really look deeply at something and see it in many different ways.

To sort into categories, you certainly need to remember the characteristics you’re using (that’s where working memory comes in), but you also need to employ what is called ‘inhibitory control,’ which is the ability to override your automatic response. That’s what you’re doing when you resist identifying one characteristic (say, size) over the other (like color).

What is really great about this activity, is that it really helps promote cognitive flexibility – the ability to see things in more than one way. When you look at the pictures above, you probably first see one level of similarity – all toys, all berries, all yellow. When you shift your perspective on them to find differences or alternative ways to sort them, you start to see things you hadn’t before. And you think about them in a new way, seeing connections that you hadn’t notice.


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