Shape Sorting Toys and Their Benefits

Updated on January 23, 2017

What are shape sorting toys?

Shape sorters have been around for centuries and have evolved into many different forms, all with the same general concept. They consist of some sort of container with indented or perforated slots in which a corresponding piece fits in to. Many varieties exist. Some are flat, others are cubes or shaped as objects such as a tool box. The object is for a child to fit the correct pieces into their matching slot on the container.

How can my child benefit from playing with shape sorting toys?

Playing with shape sorters can:

  • Facilitate motor skill development and problem solving skills
  • Teach cause-and-effect
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Help with shape identification and color practice

When a toddler tries to insert a square block in to a round hole and sees that it isn’t working, he may brainstorm how to get the block to go through, and try a different slot until he finds the one that works. He used problem-solving to figure out his dilemma, and witnessed the cause-and-effect when attempting to pass a block through an incorrect space vs. through a correct space.

Once the basic concept of fitting the correct pieces into their corresponding slots is mastered, toddlers or young children can also use shape sorters to practice color and shape identification. They may also use the toy to practice counting, as shapes are often taught using the concept of “how many sides does this shape have?” The child can count the number of sides on each shape, and then examine the shape sorter to see which slot has the same amount of sides (or lack thereof for a circle or oval), and effectively use counting and problem solving to figure out the game. For older children, once they have completely mastered the shape sorting toy, they can work on improving their speed.

Shape Sorting Benefits by Age

Suggestions for Play
Skills Acquired
6 months-15 months
Child may dump pieces out, play with them separately, and possibly attempt to fit them in slots
Tactile and motor skills, hand-eye coordination
15 months-3 years
Attempt to successfully fit blocks in corresponding slots
Cause-and-effect, problem solving, shape and color identification
3-4 years and beyond
Time how fast child is able to fit each piece in corresponding slot
Counting, goal-setting, continued improvement on previous skills
General benefits by age group associated with playing with shape sorting toys, along with playing suggestions.

What are the different types of shape sorting toys?

As mentioned previously, there are many varieties of shape sorting toys available. The shape of the container and pieces, the material, and the difficulty level are several variables to consider. Some sorters are made of wood, others of plastic. Some have only one plane containing holes for the shapes, while others are three dimensional. Below are examples of several shape sorters ranging in difficulty from easiest to most complex.

Plastic shape sorters.

These typically have one plane for shape sorting, with more basic shapes. Some may be three-dimensional, with more than one plan for shape sorting. Some have a convenient handle for carrying. The container is easily opened for removing shapes. These types are easier for a younger baby to handle and manipulate.

Textured or fabric shape sorters.

These shape sorters are typically constructed as a plush carrying case with slots for plush pieces to fit through. One plane only is used for sorting. Textured material offer additional tactile and sensory development for younger babies, and the shapes are conventional. It is not as challenging for an older toddler or preschooler. With this type of shape sorter, some shapes may be easily manipulated to fit in to the incorrect slot.

Wooden shape sorters.

These usually come in cube or rectangular containers. They typically have 5 or 6 planes for sorting. Wooden shape sorters tend to have more shapes because of the additional planes, and are more challenging for an older toddler who has already mastered easier shape sorters. Just be careful with the sharper edges and wooden pieces, which can potentially be dangerous if a baby decides to chew on them or throw them.

Make your own!

Don't want to buy yet another toy, but still want your child to acquire the same benefits he could get from playing with a shape sorting toy? Here are several ideas to try to make your own “shape sorters” at home:

  • Set up a round container and a square container, and provide circle-shaped cereal (such as Cheerios) and square-shaped cereal (such as Quaker Toasted Oatmeal squares). Have your child sort the circle pieces of cereal in to the round container, and the square pieces in to the square container.

  • Cut out a variety of shapes from a piece of cardboard or foam core. Measure and cut out corresponding shapes out of card stock. Mount the cardboard or foam core on top of a clear plastic container. Have your child insert the card-stock shapes into the correct slots.

Remember safety.

When playing with shape sorting toys, or with any toys containing smaller parts, take extra care that any shapes or pieces are not a choking hazard to your child. Check the packaging on the toy to see what age group it is targeted too, and to see if there are any such warnings. Also, be careful not to create a tripping hazard for you or your child when dumping out the pieces.


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