5 ways sorting Halloween candy can help children develop mathematics skills


Thinking back on Halloween, were you a “dump all your candy into one bowl” child? Or did you enjoy meticulously sorting your treats into a post-Halloween candy store and trading with others?

If you were the sorting and arranging type, whether you realized it or not, you took advantage of the many informal and unintentional mathematics learning opportunities Halloween provides. These opportunities likely have important long-term benefits for children’s mathematical knowledge and confidence.

Math talk at home can promote early math learning. Our research has consistently shown that early exposure to math content at home predicts children’s school mathematics outcomes. In our latest work with colleagues who are part of a language learning and mathematics achievement research group, we are learning that when children are involved in second or additional-language learning, gaining math vocabulary in the additional language is also important.

Counting and sorting Halloween treats — and other forms of household sorting that caregivers could lead, like sorting socks in the laundry — allows children to learn important skills that lay the foundation for higher-level mathematics.

Every day early learning opportunities

Because of the strong relationship between early home learning and child outcomes, a group of researchers, community educators, high school and university students, founded ToyBox, an educational resource. This work started at the University of Winnipeg and now engages collaborators from across Canada.

ToyBox provides fun and easy-to-use ideas about numberslanguage and wellness that are based on child development research for caregivers and their children aged two to eight years. The resource offers learning activities for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners to capture the interests and developmental capabilities of young minds. Each activity also contains an explanation about why the idea is important for learning. Student collaborators created characters who accompany each strategy, to keep the learning fun.

One focus of ToyBox is helping caregivers to use math every day to help increase math knowledge, which may also have benefits to keep the math learning positive. Opportunities to highlight math in everyday lives could mean talking about money or time — or using Halloween candy to highlight math concepts.

Not just for children: ToyBox characters in the shape of a circle, square and triangle keep the learning light for caregivers. (Mireya Tolentino), Author provided (no reuse)

Sorting: An important math concept

Sorting is part of the early school math curricula. By sorting, children gain deep understandings, including the attributes of objects and inferences about them. They learn about sameness or difference, and improve how thoughts are organized in their memories.

Sorting tasks encourage children to focus on categorizing objects by attributes such as size, shape, colour or brand. The roots of algebra and geometry are embedded in these problem-solving opportunities that present naturally in homes.

Caregivers can base discussions on what their children know and are ready to learn. Caregivers’ involvement and approach may differ depending on the unique interests and capabilities of each child. Children’s interests and caregiver involvement support learning. Have the conversation, and your child will surprise you!

Ways to sort candy with children

1. Involve children as you discuss categories. Children can sort however they want, and it is fun!

For the little ones, caregivers could ask children to “find the orange ones,” and then count them. Preschool children can be asked to count and sort by conventional candy type (chocolate bars, chips, gum). School-aged children can generate their own categories like “my favourites,” “Dad’s favourites” or “peanut free.”

Caregivers can ask children about their ideas for how to sort, or start them out with ideas: For example, sort by size.

Tiny, bite-sized or mini? Caregivers can introduce and reiterate quantity and math words. (Shutterstock)

2. Encourage mathematics vocabulary and number and shape words: Caregivers can introduce or reiterate number words, or count in an additional language. Comparative words like bigger or smaller, or superlative words like largest or smallest; or words representing sizes such as tiny, mini or bite-size can be used to expand vocabulary.

Caregivers can be strategic and creative, using key vocabulary denoting shapes, but also in using words like long, fat, thin and round. They can talk about what math education experts call number magnitudes, like the concept of “which has more.” Children can learn measurement terms such as grams, millilitres, centimetres — or even money and unit costs.

3. Encourage children to make patterns with the sorted candy as this activity also has learning benefits.

4. With older children, graph results to show patterns in the data derived from sorting. You do not need graph paper! In a YouTube example, one of our collaborators, early years teacher and parent Sarah Melo shows how children can draw a graph on plain or lined paper showing a simple list of categories. For instance, list different brands of candy, and then, across the top of the page, create lines to segment different boxes where children can show “how many” in each category. Melo’s website, MeloMath4Kids has great further resources.

5. Talk about fractions: For example: “one-third of the treats are chocolate bars.”

More ideas for home learning

For more ideas about early learning at home, we invite caregivers to consult the ToyBox website. Or you can sign up to receive regular activities about language, numbers or wellness. We also continue to seek participants for our research.

Happy counting and sorting this Halloween and beyond!

Author Bios: Sheri-Lynn Skwarchuk is Full Professor, Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg, Erin A Maloney is Assistant Professor, School of Psychology at L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa and Heather P. Douglas is Adjunct professor, Department of Cognitive Science at Carleton University