Remember the expression “a square peg in a round hole”? Immediately we understand what’s being said; someone is a misfit, an individual who does not fit within a specific group. The observation creates a visual impression. We see in our mind’s eye the misfit between a square peg and a round hole. Perhaps because as toddlers we played with one or more shape sorters and learned to “post” shapes into their corresponding spaces.
Shape sorters take many forms, and what works well for one child might not be the best choice for another. When considering shape sorters, remember that toddlers are just beginning to distinguish shapes. Limit shapes to basic ones: circle, square, triangle. The goal is to balance challenge with the likelihood of success. Acquiring skills is an ongoing process that moves forward with experience, repetition, and incremental success.
Shape sorters develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, and language skills. Rewarding matching with a distinctive sound also develops auditory awareness and discrimination. Value-added features expand play possibilities.
Children need to feel competent and confident of their skills before moving on to the next level. If a toy is too complex, the child will avoid it, and we will need to “walk backwards in our minds” to identify the missing link between where she is now and the activity we’ve offered.
With discriminating shapes, stepping back means assessing multiple skills. Does she easily grasp and release? Does she relish every opportunity to” fill and spill”? Are her eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills well developed enough for her to fit a peg in a hole? These activities come before posting shapes. The Classic Pop Up Toy is an engaging, traditional wooden toy featuring four peg figures that pop up and down on concealed springs as the child presses one after another. The removable figures can be color matched to stripes on the front of the box but that’s optional. The focus is on developing eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills required for successful posting. Matching colors and shapes are a next step.
Ambi Lock A Block is my favorite shape sorter. Features that make Lock A Block most successful to beginning sorters also make it a must for inclusive play. Unique attributes that support success in identifying and matching primary colors and basic shapes include high contrast between white top and color matched, raised rim openings and three dimensional shapes that drop into place more readily than shaped dowel pieces. Retrieving shapes by unlocking a door on the front of the block adds another dimension to play. The permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. The lock clicks as the key turns, adding auditory input.
A perennial favorite among the blind and visually impaired is Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter. Each shape makes a unique sound as it slides down its clear tube. The basic shapes – circle, square, and triangle – require more precise fitting than the three dimensional ones in Lock A Block, but the auditory response rewards the persistent. For children needing tactile re-enforcement, the openings for the shapes can be outlined with a Wikki Stix. When no longer needed, Wikki Stix peels off easily. Retrieve the shapes by turning Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter upside down.
Musical Shape Sorter challenges with four distinct shapes, each featuring a different animal insert. Each shape doubles as a rattle that makes its own distinctive sound. Set the dial to play either animal sounds or four different melodies in response to the correct placement of the shapes. The auditory feedback develops auditory discrimination. Battery-operated, Musical Shape Sorter, features an on/off switch.
The most versatile and sophisticated shape sorter, Teatime Shape Sorter, doubles as a shape sorter and a usable tea pot. Whoever would have expected such a combination? And yet, we all appreciate toys with multiple ways to play, don’t we? A clear beaker fits securely inside the pot and holds liquid to pour into the cups. When teatime ends, remove the beaker and slide the four cups into the pot through cut-outs that match the color and shape of each cup. Retrieve the shapes by removing the lid.
Inviting imaginative play, Teatime Shape Sorter develops social skills and provides practice in pouring. Learning to pour liquids without spilling is a challenge requiring concentration and coordination, fundamental skills needed for developing more complex ones. Being able to pour without spilling gives a child independence: he can pour himself something to drink when he’s thirsty. When he offers someone else a drink, he’s demonstrating social awareness. Learning to estimate how much liquid is in a pitcher and figuring out how to divide that evenly among the tea cups develops mathematical awareness. Talk about unexpected learning from a shape sorter.
When choosing a shape sorter, consider the child who will be playing with the toy. Once you’ve figured out the appropriate skill level, you’ll be able to choose confidently.
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