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Why Do Toddlers Sort & Line Up Toys? Experts Weigh In

You really can’t Google anything these days as a parent without having all of the worst-case-scenario information pop up on that list. At least I can’t. I was simply wondering why my toddler sorts his toys — he likes to line up his blocks and sort them by color — and the internet led me down a rabbit hole of autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and more. To be fair, I’m not one of the calmest people on the planet and my anxiety makes me go immediately to worst-case-scenario. But if your toddler is like mine and enjoys sorting their toys, you need to know it isn’t necessarily a red flag.

Dr. Gina Posner, pediatrician, tells Romper pretty simply that any toy sorting is just your toddler figuring out their environment and how different things fit together. “Their brain is trying to figure out how different objects fit together, whether by color, shape, texture, etc.,” she explains.

Posner says this act of sorting is actually a positive thing in most children and that it’s good for their cognitive development. Dr. Daniel Ganjian, pediatrician, agrees, and says that when toddlers are figuring out which toys are similar and which are dissimilar, they’re using a lot of “toddler brain-power,” which is always a good thing if you ask me.

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Additionally, sorting is “foundational in math skills,” reported PopSugar. Special education administrator Jacquelyn Smith, told PopSugar, “Despite concerns, sorting proves a much-needed skill for when toddlers begin entering school,” and that sorting and organizing are “necessary skills.”

Another perk of your toddler sorting, stacking, and lining up toys is they’re also fine-tuning their gross- and fine-motor skills, per specialneeds.com.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, don’t be concerned if your toddler doesn’t sort toys, per Posner and Ganjian. “It is a good skill, so getting sorting toys can help work their brain, but if they don’t sort them, I wouldn’t be concerned,” Posner says. And Ganjian adds that many “advanced” children do not like sorting toys. He says that between the ages of 2 and 3, you’ll start to notice your child figuring out how to sort colors and shapes.

Recommended sorting toys that help toddlers with this skill, according to Posner, include blocks of different shapes and colors. And Ganjian says, “The simpler the toy, the better. Avoid the toys with the bells and whistles (lights and sounds), and stick with the classics, which are better for development."

But if your toddler's sorting habit seems to cause them anxiety or becomes a debilitating activity that interferes with other parts of their lives, "it might be a sign of OCD or even autism,” according to specialneeds.com.

Posner also says that if your child is obsessive about their need to sort and can’t go anywhere without everything being sorted out to their liking, that’s when you should have them evaluated by your pediatrician.

“Repetitive behaviors are not always signs of autism," Ganjian says. "Autism is not based on one finding. A child has to have a constellation of symptoms to make that diagnosis. Let your pediatrician know if you have any concerns. We have specialized tools (such as the MCHAT) to help make the diagnosis."

Sorting toys is a normal part of toddler development, and you should only be concerned if it becomes habitual or obsessive. Otherwise, you can nurture your child’s curiosity and interest in sorting by purchasing simple toys, such as blocks of different colors, toys that include different shapes and colors with baskets, or even stacking toys.

Experts:

Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California