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How to Develop Preschool Math Skills

Counting practice...And patterns, too!

Counting practice...And patterns, too!

Supporting Early Math Skills

How many times have you counted your steps as you climbed the stairs with your three-year-old? Or the buttons on a sweater, or the polka dots on a ladybug? These are things we as parents do automatically without even thinking about it, but they are the very things that will help our little ones learn math when they are in elementary school.

Preschool math is really all about giving your three- to five-year-old an everyday experience with numbers so that they are familiar with some of the basic concepts they will use to build their understanding of math later on.

Everyday activities can serve as math practice.

Everyday activities can serve as math practice.

Everyday Numbers

A Good Foundation

Think of your child's preschool math experience in terms of setting a foundation on which to build. If you try to build a house without a foundation, you may be able to build something that looks pretty, but if a hurricane comes through, will it stand?

Your child's preschool math experience is similar. It needs a foundation to be secure. How can you give your child the best foundation on which to build an understanding of math? Are you comfortable with math and numbers yourself?

Keep It Simple

The truth is, early exposure to numbers and to mathematical concepts is not too difficult to give your child and can make a big difference in preparing her to have a positive attitude towards numbers, no matter what your own mathematical comfort level is.

Numbers are important in many aspects of our lives. From early on, children start to put order into their worlds by counting. Of course, some of this early counting is to please you, the one your child loves so much! Your delight at hearing your child count encourages him to want to count more.

Counting objects: One to one correspondance.

Counting objects: One to one correspondance.

Fun Animal Counters

Having fun things around to count can create playful opportunities to learn. So many little ones are fascinated with animals. Take advantage of this interest by offering them fancy counters to play with. They can be organized by color or by size. They can be used to make patterns (one blue, two red, three yellow; one blue, two red, three yellow, etc.)

Search Amazon for jungle animal counters. You can also get counters in teddy bear shapes or little cars or bugs.

What works best is to keep them in a special jar that can be taken out as a treat, instead of just dumping them into a general toy box where they could get lost.

Gummy bears can be used instead of the plastic toy counters as a special treat.

Gummy bears can be used instead of the plastic toy counters as a special treat.

Numbers in Everyday Life

Play with Math as You Go Through Your Day

Numbers are one of the ways we make sense of our world. Preschool math experiences can be initiated even before the age of three. During your child's first year, you can count your steps as you go up and down the staircase; you can count 1, 2, 3! as you lift her into the highchair or pick her up out of her crib.

Once your child is speaking, you can help him notice the signs of numbers around him: there are numbers on the clock; there are numbers on the thermometer. When you are in the grocery store, you can point out numbers on the displays at the vegetable counter or stuck into the filets of fish. When you pass the bank, there may be a sign outside telling you what the air temperature is. You can see numbers in newspapers and flyers, on billboards, on the pages of books.

As your toddler becomes a preschooler, she can help you set the table by putting one spoon down for each member of the family. This helps her develop one-to-one correspondence in a meaningful way. When she divvies up the cookies, she is practicing the same skill. Later on, she will build on these experiences for adding and dividing.

Setting the table helps your child understand one to one correspondance.

Setting the table helps your child understand one to one correspondance.

Recognizing Patterns in Preschool Math

Your child can learn a lot by lining up her toys in long trains. You may notice her doing this quite spontaneously with blocks or animals or little cars. She may put all the red cars in one line and the blue ones in another line. Hooray! She is making patterns, noticing colors, and organizing her stuff.

You can help bring her to the next step by making a chain of one red car, two blue cars, one red car, two blue cars and ask her if she can repeat the pattern. Of course, instead of cars, you can use blocks or jelly beans, or beads.

Accept whatever she produces without correction but with great cheers if she is able to reproduce what you have done. After all, this is play and you don't want it to be too pressured. Keep trying again now and then and eventually, she will "get" it and make patterns over and over again. If she makes a pattern, repeat it and point out to her how you made yours the same as hers!

Lining up cars according to color.

Lining up cars according to color.

Stringing Patterns

You can make patterns with colored pasta.

You need:

  • Uncooked pasta (any kind with a hole in the middle that you can string)
  • Food coloring
  • A bowl for each color
  • Long shoelaces

Put an equal amount of pasta into each bowl. Squirt food coloring over each bowlful of pasta and mix with a spoon. Let dry. Use a shoelace to string a pattern of colors. Take turns being the leader and the follower.

Building with blocks.

Building with blocks.

Playing with Blocks

Playing with blocks is a classic game for many reasons. Children love to knock them over and stack them up again. Blocks offer open-ended play experiences, something all early childhood educators claim is essential for your child's rapidly developing brain. There is no "right way" or "wrong way" to play with blocks (with the exception of using them as weapons!) so your child feels free to manipulate them in whatever way she needs at the moment.

Blocks can be used to help understand concepts about space, shapes, cause and effect, gravity, and balance. They can be used to build structures for imaginative play.

Of course, you can buy blocks. Maybe you have already received them as a baby gift. Lucky you! But you can make your own if you find them too expensive at the store.

Wooden blocks: Odds and ends from building projects can be sandpapered smooth and used as building blocks. They're especially fun when they have different shapes and sizes. If you have pieces of 2 x 4 or other boards, you can cut them into cubes or lengths with different-sized faces. Cut some across the diagonal to make a triangular face. The more shapes your child has to work with, the more types of buildings she can make, and the more fun she can have.

Cardboard blocks: You can make a wonderful set of blocks using empty milk or juice cartons.

You can also take any shipping/packing boxes and decorate them to use as blocks. Make it an extended project by having your kids paint them first with water-based paints. Cereal boxes, tea boxes, etc. can all be used this way to give you a variety of shapes.

Empty yogurt or other plastic containers with lids can have a new life as additions to your child's building supplies.

Playing in a sandbox.

Playing in a sandbox.

Playing in Sand

Volume, Shapes, Fractions

Children learn many things by playing in sand. Filling up and dumping pails and buckets gives them tactile experience with volume. A half-cup measure can fill up a full cup measure how many times? You can draw shapes in wet sand with a stick. You can use your imagination and mix up some cakes or soup with a pail and shovel.

Do you live where you cannot play outside in the sand? Maybe it's too cold, or maybe you are in an apartment or have no yard. Try making a "sandbox" in the house where you and your child can play.

Spread a flat sheet on the floor to catch any spills. (You can roll it up and dump out the mess later.) Then in a shallow plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, the type you can purchase as a storage container in a hardware store or any department store, pour one of the following: birdseed, rice, cornmeal, rolled oats.

Choose something cheap that you can buy in bulk. Except for the birdseed, which you could set out for the birds later, you won't want to eat what you are playing with, especially if you play with it over and over again. Of course, if you live near a beach, you could use real sand, but be sure there are no bugs in it that could get into your house.

Your child can sit by the container in the middle of the sheet and play with measuring cups and measuring spoons, cookie cutters, funnels, bowls, and anything else you can pull out of your kitchen supplies. This is a great activity to play together or your child can play beside you while you are making dinner.

When you are finished, put the lid on the container and store it out of reach.

These experiences with measuring will give your children a foundation on which to understand concepts of volume and fractions when they are in elementary school.

Playing in puddles.

Playing in puddles.

Water Play

Measuring and Volume with a Whole Lot of Fun

Water play can be another open-ended fun activity that gives kids experience with volume and measuring. The bathtub is the main area where this play can take place, but you can set up a space similar to the indoor sandbox using an old shower curtain, vinyl or plastic tablecloth, or tarp instead of the sheet.

Let your child have a few extra minutes to play at the end of bath time. You don't need to direct this play too much as long as you give your child access to unbreakable cups, preferably measuring cups, and spoons. You'd be surprised how much preparation for more formal learning happens just by "messing about," as the frog in Wind in the Willows once said.

But, of course, NEVER LEAVE YOUR CHILD ALONE NEAR WATER! Even a little bit of water can be enough for a child to drown in.

© 2010 Sheilamarie

What Ways Do You Play with Math with Your Children? - How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways . . .

Georgiy on January 19, 2020:

...Kids learn so much through play....

I agree 100%. Only through games does the child know the world. Combinatorial modeling through cubes is the basis of a platform for knowledge and personal development.

Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on October 22, 2018:

I'm glad you found the information helpful. I did look at your website; however, there's nothing there about studying mathematics. Instead you are trying to sell a writing service.

Fero123 on October 22, 2018:

Thank you for your work. I think now we can get to understand math with my baby. I’m not good at explaining, but in a playful way, I think it should work out. By the way, I found an interesting study about how to help a child in studying mathematics and I think that it will also be useful. by the way, you can even find interesting expert's reviews so I advise you to look there.

Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on June 15, 2015:

Kids learn so much through play.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin on June 15, 2015:

Think I am still doing preschool math. This information is so helpful to teach those preschool children.

Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on May 28, 2015:

Great ideas, peachpurple ! We can use things in our everyday environments to teach simple concepts. Food's a brilliant choice!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on May 28, 2015:

i used my kiddo's toys to make him count. Then, I used nuts, he was crazy over nuts

Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on May 06, 2015:

Thanks, tammyswallow. I'm glad you found it helpful.

Tammy from North Carolina on May 05, 2015:

Great ideas for parents and teachers!

Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on March 10, 2013:

@verymary: Thanks, KarateKatGraphics!

Mary from Chicago area on March 09, 2013:

Very substantial lens with lots of good ideas!

poutine on February 12, 2011:

Very well presented lens.

ClamChowda on October 03, 2010:

Great photos!

julieannbrady on September 25, 2010:

OMG! Yes indeed ... for this was what my father did with me when I was a wee little one. This and the slide rule and square roots and long division and a host of other mathematical thingies which gave me such a solid foundation.