When purchasing materials and planning learning activities for children of multiple ages, it's important I keep the different skill levels and interests of my buddies in mind. I have purchased several counting and sorting sets from classroom supply companies but these were all geared towards preschoolers and were fairly pricey as well.
You won't be surprised to hear that I love shopping at the dollar stores. I had been eyeing a set of pop bead animals for a while and finally purchased them. They seemed sturdy, and I had several plans for their use. Even buying 5 sets of them (so that there would be enough for group play) they were about the same price or less as other count and sort activity sets I have purchased in the past.
EDIT: I no longer recommend this product! Once my buddies started using them, some of the tabs broke off, making them a possible choking hazard and NOT A GOOD DEAL at all!
I loved the colours, I loved that they are animal heads, I loved that they can be linked together. I planned that my youngest buddies would use them just to practice fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination as they popped the beads together. They would be sorted in a variety of ways. Each animal comes in two colours and there is a "boy" and "girl" version of a couple of the animals. They could be counted and used for addition and subtraction. The linking ability make them a natural toy for pattern making as well.
They are called garanimals and I would have had a new favourite learning toy except that they break and are now a choking hazard!