Prime Your Child’s Reading & Math Development with Patterns

Sorting, categorizing, & patterning games build future literacy & numeracy.

Posted Apr 22, 2015

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Source: wikimedia commons

Patterning refers to the meaningful process of organizing, coding, and categorizing information in the brain. It is through the patterns constructed and stored in neural networks that our brains recognize and find relevance in the millions of bits of sensory input received every second. The greater your child’s prior experiences in sorting information into categories, the greater her chances of finding these meaningful patterns in new information. When you provide your child with a rich environment, interesting experiences, and sorting (categorizing) activities, you help her build her useful patterning tools.

Develop Prereading Skills with Patterning in Young Children

Two skills highly correlated with future reading proficiency are exposure to parents who read for personal pleasure and early phonemic awareness. When your child sees you reading for pleasure and you share interesting facts or part of a story with her, she sees that reading is fun. When you show her how you use reading to follow a recipe or assemble a toy, she learns that reading is valuable.

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Source: wikimedia commons

Phonemic awareness is a bit trickier. It concerns your child developing the understanding that letters have associated sounds. Phonics involves connecting sounds with specific letters or groups of letters (that is, that the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, or ck spellings). Phonemic awareness starts when you read to your child and at times point to the words as you read them. This lets your child see that the letters symbolize sounds. The best activities to increase the development of phonemic awareness, and later phonics and word recognition, in young children are patterning games.

With strong patterning skills, your child will be able to recognize and remember the patterns found in letters, words, and sentence structures needed to become a proficient reader. Learning to observe carefully is the first step toward building strong patterning skills in your young child.

Observation Activities

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Source: wikimedia commons hs bio

Your child needs to be a good observer in order to recognize patterns. Try using the following games to build your young child’s observation skills:

  • Play “Shape Hunt”: Ask your child to lead you around the house and point to all things that are circle shaped (or square, etc.).
  • “Color Detective”: As you drive together in the car, have your child say “red” each time he sees a red car. Then ask him to be on the lookout for another color.
  • “Vanishing Objects” Place a few household objects on a tray, and allow your child to examine them. Then ask him to close his eyes as you remove an object. When he opens his eyes, have him try to recall which object is missing. Gradually increase the number of objects on the tray as his skill improves.
  • “Eagle-eye” for details and change builds when you encourage close observation. Spend some time with your child observing the details of a leaf. Encourage her to tell you all the things she notices about the leaf. Try this with other objects indoors as well as in nature. Natural history museums with collections of rocks, butterflies, and bird eggs are great sources of objects that are similar but reveal differences upon closer observation.
  • “What’s Missing?” Read a very familiar story or poem aloud, and leave out a word or sentence. Make a game of asking your child to say, “I noticed” when you leave something out. After a few tries, give him the opportunity to recall the missing words. You’ll be building his memory skills along with his auditory observation.
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Source: wikimedia commons

Pattern Identification Activities

The brain recognizes and stores information by seeking out familiar patterns. Learning takes place when your child’s brain recognizes something new fitting into one of its stored patterns, and links the new sensory input with that memory circuit. Try the following activities to practice pattern identification with your child.

“Pattern Sequencing” Invite your child to find patterns in a sequence, such as objects with three, four, or five sides, etc. or may make up a song or rhyme that has sound patterns. You can encourage her with one you make up, such as: 

Some buttons are red,
Some buttons are blue.
Buttons with two holes (or however many holes yours has)
Are in the pattern made by YOU!

Button Matching Games” Take a large bag of assorted buttons (you can purchase these at most sewing stores for a few dollars) and make small groups of buttons that share simple characteristics such as color, shape, or number of holes. Have your child select a button from the bag that he thinks fits with your cluster. If he is correct, ask him why his button matches. As your child progresses, add more complex patterns such as flat versus indented, multicolored versus single color, metal versus plastic. Always be present when toddlers have access to buttons or other small objects because they are a choking hazard.

Investigate patterns by finding matching buttons elsewhere, such as on the shirts in his closet, which adds movement to the activity. Ask him to look for a piece of clothing in his closet he believes has buttons that match the ones you gathered. For example, if you group together various two-hole buttons and he thinks he knows the pattern, he can look for shirts with two-hole buttons to show you.

In addition to buttons, you can also sort clothes (pants, shirts, socks, shoes;
outdoor/indoor; summer/winter), utensils (forks, knives, spoons), shapes (triangles, squares, circles), or pictures cut from magazines (people, animals, objects, toys, machines, transportation vehicles).

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Source: wikimedia commons

Visualizing Patterns

Visualization is an essential skill for prereading that can be developed in young children through active listening. Before your child can visualize the images represented by words on a page, she needs practice visualizing words she hears spoken. Visualizing words that are heard builds the brain’s pattern recognition and pattern development skills.

Encourage children to describe what they “see” mentally when they hear you read. After you read a book to your child several times, encourage him to describe the visual images repeating the same sequence in which they occurred in the story. This reinforces his auditory and sequence learning strengths to optimal potentials for reading.

Invite your children to draw the visual images that come to mind as you read or reread a familiar book. When your child draws her visualizations, her brain connects images with word sounds. This enhances the neural networks needed to connect written words with their sounds and images when starting to read.

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Source: wikimedia commons


It has long been the goal of education to provide students with both the skills and knowledge to serve them beyond the classroom and the habits of mind to sustain lifelong learning. Hopefully these patterning strategy correlations from neuroscience will add to your toolkit.  Help your children build their brains’ most effective powerful processing and memory circuits to serve them now and in the future.