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Getting direct descendant elements by selector with vanilla JS

Today, you’re going to learn how to get direct descendant elements, but only the ones that match a selector.

The challenge

The querySelector() and querySelectorAll() browser APIs are amazing and super versatile. They even let you search within a specific element instead of the entire document, if you want.

// Get the #sandwich element
var sandwiches = document.querySelector('#sandwiches');

// Get all elements inside #sandwich with the .tuna class
var tuna = sandwiches.querySelectorAll('.tuna');

In the example above, tuna will return a NodeList of an element inside #sandwich with the .tuna class, no matter how many levels down in the DOM hierarchy it is.

<div id="sandwiches">
	<div id="one" class="tuna">This will match</div>
		Hello, world!

		<div id="two" class="tuna">This will, too!</div>
	<div id="three" class="tuna">So will this</div>

What if you only wanted to get items #one and #three, but not #two? The .children property provides a list of all direct descendant elements, but you can’t restrict it to only certain selectors.

Let’s look at simple approach to getting only direct descendants by a selector.

Combining methods

The trick here is to combine three approaches:

  1. Use the .children property to get all direct descendant elements.
  2. Use the Array.filter() method to filter out elements that don’t match the selector.
  3. Use the Element.matches() method to check if each element matches a selector.

It would look something like this:

// Get the #sandwich element
var sandwiches = document.querySelector('#sandwiches');

// Get all elements inside #sandwich with the .tuna class
var tuna = sandwiches.children.filter(function (sandwich) {
	return sandwich.matches('.tuna');

There’s a problem with this code, though. The filter() method only works on arrays, and .children returns an HTML collection.

You could use Array.from() to turn it into an array, but browser support isn’t great and it requires a polyfill.

var tuna = Array.from(sandwiches.children).filter(function (sandwich) {
	return sandwich.matches('.tuna');

Another approach would be to use the call() method to apply the Array.prototype.filter() method to a non-array, like this.

var tuna =, function (sandwich) {
	return sandwich.matches('.tuna');

It does the same thing, but without the need for an Array.from() polyfill.

A helper function

Instead of writing that out every time, let’s create a small helper function, childrenMatches().

It will accept the element to get direct descendants for and a selector to match against as arguments.

 * Get all direct descendant elements that match a selector
 * Dependency: the matches() polyfill:
 * (c) 2018 Chris Ferdinandi, MIT License,
 * @param  {Node}   elem     The element to get direct descendants for
 * @param  {String} selector The selector to match against
 * @return {Array}           The matching direct descendants
var childrenMatches = function (elem, selector) {
	return, function (child) {
		return child.matches(selector);

You would use it like this.

var sandwiches = document.querySelector('#sandwiches');
var tuna = childrenMatches(sandwiches, '.tuna');

This works in all modern browsers, and IE9 and up. The Element.matches() method does require a tiny polyfill to deal with some vendor-specific prefixing in some browsers, though.

Here’s a demo to play with. You can also find it on the Vanilla JS Toolkit.