Learning to Categorise | La Petite Crèche  


Learning to Categorise

What is categorising?

To categorise is to reduce the complexity of the world and to put your knowledge in order by subdividing it into groups. 

Jean-Louis Paour, director of the Department of Psychology, Sciences of Education at the University of Provence


To categorise is to consider in an equivalent way objects, people or situations that share common characteristics. 

Sylvie Cèbe, Professor of Education at the University of Geneva

Different types of categorisation

For the child, reality is divided into scenes, events, objects. He organises the world first of all from a perceptual point of view: by colour, shape, etc., then moving towards other types of categorisation which  are more structured and flexible.

  • From birth, a child perceives differences: A child mother's voice is different from a stranger's voice, his/her father's face is not the same as his/her mother's. The perception of differences is the basis of categorisation.
  • The young child constructs perceptual categories from physical equivalences between objects. If we present different objects to the child, he/she would associate them according to their size, shape, colour, usage. In the child's first year of life, he/she learns to categorise things in their head in a very general way. The child begins by identifying very different categories (e.g. animals and vehicles). The child would knows that a dog is very different from a car.
  • The child finds it easier to categorise things that are not alike. For example, it is easier to place a dinosaur and a toy car in two categories than an apple and a ball. As they grow, the more precisely they will categorise.
  • It is not based on similarity, but rather on bringing together elements that are associated in the same context or in the same event of everyday life. The objects share a relation of contiguity in the same space / time and / or in a causal link.

Example: A tractor and a cow belong to the “farm” category

  • These categories are highly contextualised; they depend on the experiences that children have on a daily basis. Their content may vary from one individual to another.
  • Taxonomic categories (families) group together elements that are alike and share common properties: animals, foods, plants. The organization of these groups is similar from person to person. However, notions of hierarchy do appear.
  • Example: tractor and cow belong to the “farm” category.

    These categories are highly contextualised; they depend on the experiences that children have on a daily basis. Their content may vary from one individual to another.


    • The activity of categorising is first perceptual and then quickly becomes flexible, i.e. the child will gradually understand that the same object can belong to several families.

      Example: An apple may belong to several categories 

      Perceptual category: Green

      Taxonomic category: Fruit

      Thematic (or functional) category: An ingredient one would need to make an apple pie

  • Working on flexibility means being able to swiftly move from criteria to categorise. It is essential to begin implementing it as soon as possible, by training children to categorise the object in different categories. The child would then learn to identify the many properties of the same element (perceptual, functional, taxonomic).

Importance of categorisation

When a child groups his/her knowledge into categories, the child:

Structures and organise their thoughts
  • They simplify in their head what surrounds them, because they concentrate only on certain characteristics of an object.

For example: They understand that the car, the truck and the motorcycle roll, so they would classify vehicles as objects with wheels.

  • He can process new information more easily.

For example: If the child knows that the cat, the dog and the mouse are animals, he/she can assume that the rabbit is also an animal when he/she sees one for the first time.

  • Little by little, he acquires a more structured representation of the world.

For example:  The child first places the lion in the category of "animals", then in that of "four-legged animals" and then in that of "wild four-legged animals."

"The child would gradually learn to think in a more abstract way"

  • When growing, the child gets into more and more abstract categories of things, such as letters and numbers. This will be very useful to the child in his/her learning at school.
When it comes to memory work, the child will retain more information
Develops language, is able to name accurately, and communicates

The child's ability to categorise is closely linked to the development of his/her language skills. 

Discovering the meaning of words also assumes dividing the surrounding world into units and categories, and being able to identify the differences and similarities between these categories

  • When parents name a category for their child, they are assisting them in learning to categorise. For example, if the parent says to the child while playing with figurines, "I am placing the rabbit with the animals," the toddler will understand the category "animals."
  • Conversely, a child who organises objects into categories in his/her head will find it easier to acquire a new word. The child will also be able to identify words in their head easily. For example, if a parent asks their kid to name an animal and the child has a good mental organization of the animals, the child will be able to identify the animal quickly.


Categorising at La Petite Crèche

The role of the educator is to ensure that the categories available to the child are well diversified and frequently extended.

Throughout the day, the child categorises the world around him. At La Petite Crèche, we set up tools to help:
  • Games stored in separate boxes with images (one box for fruit, one for vegetables, cooking utensils, Lego). While putting games away, the child would be categorising 
  • Lotto game, by giving the name of the objects then the properties of the objects
  • Nomenclature cards: Activity of observation and association of images
  • Picture books to help categorise: Specific book on transport, clothing and animals
  • Activities linked to a theme: The child would make links between the activities he/she has carried out based on the nursery rhymes and the books they read
  • Sorting activities, for example to identify certain characteristics: Colours, shapes, sizes and textures. The child differentiates, names and categorises. With this activity, observation and memory skills are being called upon. Nothing beats manipulating to start detecting colours, sorting and associating things, and communicating
  • Collection activities: Collecting red objects, rolling objects, marine animals and many more
  • Thematic days: Day in blue

Our goal is to transition a child from hands-on manipulation to conversing about the objects. In doing so, the children would be exposed to the names of the objects which would link to what they do know and say. This is implemented within the thematic and taxonomic categorising activities. The memorisation of names of objects are done concurrently with categorising. As a result, there is no need to wait until the child have acquired the appropriate language abilities before beginning to work on categorising. This is done optimally and concomitantly.


  • Categorising is the basis of intellectual development. It is also closely linked to the development of languages.
  • Categorising allows the toddler to simplify and organise information in his/her head.
  • Naming the categories and items in their environment assists the child in learning the notion of categorisation.

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