Published Date: 11/24/21
Play-based math lessons for children ages 0-5
Even before children reach preschool age, they start to develop their mathematical skills as they interact with — and learn from — the world around them. When the skills they learn relate to numbers and math, they're known as early math skills, which are the skills and concepts a child builds during the first few years of their life.
Sometimes, these skills can also be referred to as pre-math skills or early numeracy skills. Before children can get to what adults think of as math, like addition and subtraction, there are actually some steps to learning mathematical concepts they must satisfy in order to advance.
Babies: Math skills learned at 0-12 months old
- Babies begin to observe the shape, size, and color of objects between 0-4 months
- They can tell the difference between a picture that shows 2 things and a picture that shows 3 things (though they obviously can’t communicate it)
- They begin to predict things and might be surprised if something that typically happens twice happens three times
- Begins classifying objects, for example, toys that have sound and toys that don’t
- Develops an understanding of cause and effect (this is one reason babies like to throw food - they throw, you pick it up - cause & effect)
- Starts to understand relative size - for example you are bigger than they are
- Around nine months babies can start to tell the difference between groups of items that have different quantities, for example one group has 5 toys and one group has 10
- Starts to understand words that describe quantities, for example bigger, smaller, more
Children develop math skills from birth!
Toddlers: Math skills learned at 1-2 years old
- Toddlers begin to recognize and name numbers
- Learns to recite the numbers 1-10, though they may skip some numbers
- Develops an understanding that numbers represent quantity - for example when you hold up two fingers
- Matches and groups basic shapes
- Starts to understand words that describe measurements, for example faster, slower
- Develops interest in measurement, for example pouring into, and emptying, a cup
- Starts noticing patterns in their environment, including their daily routine and in things like wallpaper
Preschoolers: Math skills learned at 3-4 years old
- Further develops classification skills and compares things using groups, like age or height
- Understands that numerals stand for number names
- Notices shapes in their environment
- Counts up to 20 or beyond and can count numbers in a group
- Spatial awareness improves
- Begins predicting what will happen next based on their understanding of cause & effect
Play-based approaches are the best way to develop math skills in preschoolers.
Kindergarten: Math skills learned at 5-6 years old
- Learns to count on fingers, counting to five on one hand and starting with six on their other
- Recognizes numerals up to 20 or beyond
- Begins identifying the larger of two numbers
- Starts to understand broad time concepts like the days of the week
- Follows multi-step directions when instructed to do something first and next
How to teach math to preschoolers
Children learn best through play and learning math is no exception. But, you don’t need to spend hours setting up math lessons - there are play-based ways to incorporate math into almost everything you do. Remember, math skills go far beyond counting, addition, and subtraction. Math is problem solving, estimation, spatial relations, representation, patterns, and more.
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31 Ways to teach preschoolers math
1. Board games
Board games, like Count Your Chickens, develop math skills like counting.
2. Card games
Grab a deck of cards and play Go Fish or Uno. Cards are filled with numbers, shapes, colors, and patterns. War is a super simple game to play to help preschoolers remember which numbers are bigger and which are smaller.
3. Memory matching games
Memory matching games are all opportunities to practice math skills, not just by matching, but when you count how many matches each person has. You can pick one up with your child’s favorite character or use a deck of cards you have on hand.
5. Building blocks
Basic building blocks are one of the best toys for play-based learning around and the possibilities to develop math skills are endless. Break out the blocks and as they play, ask your child questions about shapes, the number of sides a block has, and how many blocks they can stack before their tower tumbles.
6. Read books
We think of books as a way to teach children to read, but there are many play-based ways to teach math using books. Books that have children finding hidden objects, like the I Spy series, are opportunities for counting and pattern recognition.
But, even books that aren’t activity focused provide chances to teach math skills to preschoolers. You can start by simply pointing out page numbers in books, which will help your child with number recognition and help them associate meaning behind the number. Ask your child to turn the page and tell you what the next page number is.
I Spy books are filled with riddles and help develop math skills in toddlers.
6. Find numbers in the environment
We’re surrounded by numbers, which means we’re also surrounded by opportunities for learning play-based math skills. If you’re out and about, make a game out of finding numbers on signs, license plates, in the grocery store, and on clothing tags.
7. Sing counting songs
Music is such an important component of child development and is also a great tool to help preschoolers learn math! YouTube and Spotify have large collections of songs that help develop math skills in preschool children, or just ask Alexa! Songs and rhyming are long-used mnemonic devices to help aid in recall.
8. Set the table
Everyday chores can be fun when you create a math game out of it. Practice counting utensils, plates, napkins, and glasses. Plus, when you fill up your glasses (or drink from them) kids can develop an understanding of measurements.
Find everyday opportunities to incorporate play-based math into your child's day.
9. Play with stickers
Take the opportunity to create patterns and practice counting.
10. Bake cookies
Baking and cooking are filled with opportunities to develop math skills. As a bonus, following a recipe helps children learn to connect written words to an action.
11. Online games
Most parents give their children screen time and nowadays, there are so many apps available that incorporate play-based learning, including math. It’s hard to know where to look and which ones are actually good. This list of 27 online educational games for kids is a great place to start, since it’s broken down by academic category as well as age.
12. Go shopping
Shopping can be a great time to introduce preschoolers to financial literacy, which is a key math skill. Pay in cash and have them help count the money.
13. Do a puzzle
Problem solving is one of the most important math skills a preschooler should develop and puzzles are all about problem solving.
14. Play hopscotch
Hopscotch is a numbers game. Grab sidewalk chalk and head outside or painter’s tape and create an indoor board on a rainy day.
Hopscotch is a game of numbers and a fun play-based math lesson for children!
15. Mealtime math
Mealtime is a great time to teach math skills to preschool children. Who has more? Who has less? The glass is half full. How many chicken nuggets are on the plate? How many after you eat one?
16. Sort laundry
Categorization is an early math skill that lays the foundation for others. Sorting laundry is a perfect opportunity to practice.
Is dancing math? Absolutely! Music uses an 8-count, which is a perfect time to practice math skills.
18. Hang up a growth chart
Math includes measurements and kids love to see how much they’ve grown. Pick one up that includes centimeters and inches and compare the two.
19. Play with tangrams
Tangrams are a super engaging way to help preschoolers learn math. Tangrams are a Chinese geometric puzzle that has seven pieces. The pieces can be rearranged to make other shapes.
Tangrams, like these from We Are Mom Friends, develop math skills like spatial relations and problem solving.
20. Shoot pool
You may have to grab a stool for your preschooler to stand on, but billiards is a math game filled with geometry.
Grab a tape measure and start jumping. You can help your preschooler work on math skills like height, distance, and measurement.
22. Hit the arcade
The arcade is filled with opportunities to practice math. Like billiards, games like pinball, air hockey, and skeeball are games of angles. Of course, checking your score is a math lesson. And if your local arcade gives tickets for prizes, there’s another chance to practice math.
23. Clean up together
Cleaning can be fun and a math lesson for your preschool-age child. Organize while you clean and help your child learn sorting and categorization.
24. Eat pizza
Pepperoni or cheese - it doesn’t matter. Eating pizza is a math lesson in shapes, fractions, and subtraction.
25. Pick flowers
Head outside and pick some flowers (or just look at them if you don’t want to disturb nature). Count the petals and compare different flowers for an easy math lesson.
26. Play dominoes
Every child loves knocking over dominoes. But, they’re also a great way to help teach preschooler math, including the dot patterns, counting, addition, and subtraction.
27. Build with legos
Legos offer so many opportunities to practice math, including counting, geometry, grouping, patterns, addition, and subtraction.
28. Take a walk
There’s no need to create elaborate projects when teaching math to your preschooler. Head out for a walk and find shapes in nature or create a scavenger hunt. Find 10 flowers, 9 trees, 8 insects…
29. Look at bugs
While you’re out on your walk, look for some bugs for a quick and easy math lesson. How many legs does an insect have? What about a spider? Which has more? How many dots on a ladybug?
30. Play with cars
Cars are a math lesson when you start counting tires and group them by size or color. Even more, racing cars is a math lesson too when you time them and compare speed.
31. Create a countdown
A holiday, birthday, or other big event is the perfect opportunity to practice math. Create a countdown to the big day and talk about how many days have passed since you started and how many you have left.
Make learning math fun
Remember, math goes well beyond counting and arithmetic. Take a play-based approach and look for simple opportunities to incorporate math lessons into your day. You’ll see your preschooler’s math skills develop in no time!
Have a favorite play-based way to teach math? Leave it in the comments below.
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