The Concept of Categories

A lot of the intellectual work toddlers engage in involves learning to put objects and events into categories. For instance:

  • Dogs, cats, birds, and fish belong to the category of animals.

  • Dogs, neighbors, and classmates belong to the category of friends.

  • Dogs, cats, mice, and horses belong to the category of four-legged animals.

  • Parents automatically teach categories all the time without even thinking about it. “What kind of vegetable should I serve for dinner?” they wonder aloud. “I think I'll cook some peas.” This communicates that peas are vegetables, a category of food that is served at dinner. As toddlers learn the many different ways particular objects and actions can be categorized, they learn more about them. Understanding different ways that objects and events can be categorized forms the basis of abstract reasoning. Some educators consider abstract reasoning to be the highest form of intelligence.

    When people look at one object and can imagine other uses for it, they engage in the kind of creative thought that leads to innovations. Innovations have brought human beings from campfires to microwaves, from horses to jet planes. To help youngsters develop intellectually, parents should target their teaching efforts to helping them learn different ways to categorize objects.

    For instance, when toddlers learn that shoes are worn on feet and hats cover heads, they learn specific facts about two concrete objects:shoes and hats. Once youngsters comprehend the basic way in which two objects are similar — they both belong to a category called “clothes” — they have learned an abstract concept. “Clothes” doesn't refer to any one thing, but to a group of objects that are alike in one important respect:they protect or adorn the body.

    Once children grasp an abstract concept like “clothes,” it suddenly becomes possible for them to engage in creative thought. They can imagine ways to transform other objects into clothes and can place an upside-down pan on their head to turn it into a hat. A small blanket tossed over the shoulders can become a cape.

    At first, little ones may categorize all four-legged creatures as “dogs.”When parents show them pictures of dogs, point out dogs on the street, and point out pictures of other four-legged animals and teach the names, toddlers are soon able to tell the difference between dogs and other animals. In fact, they will become so adept at categorizing that if they see pictures of different dogs that bear little resemblance to one another, they will still recognize that they are all dogs.

    Any object can belong to many different categories. With help, toddlers eventually learn:

  • That a dog and a cow both belong in the category of animals

  • That a dog, a cat, and a parakeet are all pets

  • That a dog can be a friend, a protector, a danger, or a nuisance, depending on the circumstances

  • Learning about higher-level categories that require finer differentiation and more specific knowledge will take place in school. The information that dogs, whales, and humans are all mammals usually isn't taught until third grade, though many toddlers would be capable of learning this if someone took the time to teach them.

    By age three, toddlers should be familiar with many objects and a few concepts belonging to the following categories:

  • Parts of the body

  • Family members

  • Clothes

  • Rooms of the house

  • Foods

  • Toys

  • Animals

  • Colors

  • Shapes

  • Emotions (happy, sad, angry, scared)

  • Physical states (tired, hungry, thirsty, sore throat, tummy ache)

  • Occupations (doctor, teacher, bus driver, firefighter, police officer)

  • Comparisons (different, the same, good, better, worse, more, less)

  • Locations (up, down, under, over, inside, next to, near, far)

  • Size (big, small)

  • Quantity (many, a few, none)

  • Time relationships (now, later, first, then, before, after)

  • Temperature (hot, cold, warm, cool)

  • Learning from Books

    One of the reasons that picture books are so important for toddler's intellectual development is that they give parents a convenient way to teach children about a wider variety of categories. By age twelve months, children are ready for books that have information about a particular topic, such as animals, nature, or transportation. For example, a book on transportation may have a picture of airplanes, cars, boats, helicopters, space ships, and so on, to help children understand that these different objects are alike in an important respect: they are machines that move people and objects from one place to another. By age two children are usually ready for books that have simple stories. A book about a trip on an airplane will teach children about related objects and activities, from pilots to seat belts and from takeoffs to landings.

    Category Errors

    Toddlers make some predictable errors in categorization. For instance, many youngsters put every grown man they see into the category of “daddy.” To help them understand that “daddies” and “men” belong to two different categories, follow these tips:

    • Correct their error.

    • Seize opportunities to point out various men over the next few days and explain that the daddies are men with children.

    • Look at pictures in books and point out that bucks and fawns, male cats and kittens, bulls and calves all belong to the categories of animal “daddies” or “children.”

    • While looking at pictures in books, help them grasp the many other ways men can be categorized: as tall, medium, and short (when categorized by height); as fat, average, thin, or skinny (when categorized by weight); as grandfathers, husbands, fathers, or sons (depending on their relationship to others); as old men, young men, and teenagers (depending on their ages).

    Teaching Colors

    Parents should teach toddlers the names of basic colors. Even adults may not be able to agree about whether the sofa is gray or blue, or blue or green. Muddy and mixed colors can also confuse toddlers, so parents should stick to the basic colors like red, yellow, blue, and green. Variations like chartreuse and magenta may be better left for the preschool and kindergarten crowd. Here are tips for teaching colors:

  • Use the names for colors in everyday conversation. (“See the white cat?”“Hand me your red shirt.” “Those yellow dandelions are so pretty.”)

  • Have children help sort laundry into piles of white and colored clothes.

  • Provide your child with crayons and markers for coloring.

  • Show them how to sort their toys into different color piles.

  • When toddlers are finger-painting or coloring Easter eggs, demonstrate how some colors can be mixed to create others.

  • Play the “find the color” game in the car. See how many red things the two of you can find, then how many green things, and so on. Prepare for this game by having some cards with different colors on them, so the child can be sure about which color he is to look for.

  • Read Baby's Colors by Neil Ricklen (Little Simon, 1996), a board book for young toddlers. Another toddler favorite is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle, illustrator (Henry Holt & Company, 1996).

  • If a child can't learn some colors, parents should consider the possibility of blue-green color blindness. If he can't learn any, he may be completely colorblind. See a professional.


    Toddlers need to learn to recognize basic shapes, including squares, circles, triangles, hearts, diamonds, and rectangles. (Once a child masters two shapes, you can add more.) Here are some tips for teaching shapes:

  • Cut the basic shapes out of construction paper, draw them on blank note cards, or cut them out of cookie dough and bake them. They should be about 2 inches in diameter.

  • Focus on two shapes at a time.

  • Explain, “This one is a square. Here's another square. But this one is a circle.” Holding a toddler's index finger while tracing the shapes can aid comprehension and help some youngsters remember them.

  • Ask the toddler to point to the square, hand you the card with the square on it, or hand you the cookie shaped like a square. Or, if the child can talk, hold up a card or cookie and ask the child to say the name of the shape.

  • As you go through the day, point out other objects shaped like circles and squares, such as doorknobs, wheels, boxes, windows, tabletops, etc.

  • Have older toddlers try to draw shapes. Don't expect much success.

  • Locations

    Learning words like up, above, down, under, over, inside, next to, near, far, and so on, is very hard for toddlers. Use them in your everyday expressions. Take some time for concentrated teaching, too:

    Comment about locations often. (“The milk is in the refrigerator.” “The milk is on top of the counter.” “The milk is all over the floor!”)

    Present two concepts. Pick up an object (such as a book) and a container (such as a box). “The book is in the box. The apple is on top of the box.” Then ask, “Where is the book?” If the child responds by going over to retrieve the book, simply say, “Yes, the book was in the box. Can you put it on top of the box?” Keep these games fun! Stop when your toddler loses interest.

    Point out location relationships in picture books. (“The dog is in the house.” “The dog is on top of his house.” “The dog is next to the boy.”)

    Focus your child's attention on location relationships. When reading books, maintain a chatty narrative. “Where is the dog? Is he in the house? Yes, he's inside the house.” “Where is the boy? There he is. Is he on top of the house? No, he's inside the house.”

    Read The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss. (Random House, 1996).

    Toddlers cannot comprehend that some quantities are the same even though they look different. For instance, an adult can pour liquid from a tall narrow glass into a short fat one to show that both glasses hold the same quantity. Still, toddlers will still say that the tall narrow glass holds more than the short fat one.


    Organizing household possessions teaches children to categorize, so having them assist with many routine household chores gives them a lot of practice. As soon as they are old enough, ask them to help you with tasks such as matching socks, putting toys into the correct containers before putting them into the toy box, putting clean silverware into the correct compartment in the drawer, sorting cans and bottles and putting them into the correct recycling bin, and putting vegetables into the refrigerator when you return from grocery shopping.

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