There are so many engaging ways to introduce math concepts to your preschooler or toddler, no worksheets or flash cards needed. And even if you don't consider yourself a Good Will Hunting-level math genius, it's easy and fun to help your little one learn basic math skills using toys and objects you already have around the house.
Math skills preschoolers + toddlers can learn at home
Before you jump into math activities with your child, here are some basic preschool math concepts to keep in mind. You can be on the lookout for these emerging skills and interests in your child to help you decide what kinds of math activities to try.
One-to-one correspondence: This is the concept that one number corresponds to one object. Sounds super basic, right? But have you ever watched a little kid "count?" They often rattle off numbers in quick succession, totally unrelated to the number of things they're counting. It takes practice and experience to figure out that when they say "one" they only count one object.
Numeral recognition + counting: This is just what it sounds like—learning the actual numerals. Children have to learn what a "1" and "2" look like and how to use those numbers to count.
Patterns + relationships: Help your child develop a mathematical mind by playing with patterns, and introducing simple concepts like "bigger versus smaller" and "greater than versus less than."
Shapes: Exploring different shapes and learning their names gives preschoolers and toddlers a foundation for geometry later. Don't be afraid to tell them the real names of shapes, no matter how many syllables long they are! Young kids like learning big words like "parallelogram" and "octagon"—and it will be easier for them to learn now, when they soak up vocabulary like a sponge, than later in their elementary years.
Basic addition + subtraction: For preschoolers, this definitely does not mean memorizing math facts. However, young children can begin to understand that combining two groups of things together makes a bigger group. You can keep this really concrete and fun with little kids—how many cookies would you have if I gave you one more?
And now on to the fun part, the activities! Keep these low-key and child-led. There should be no pressure to get a certain result at this age: Math is just a fun activity to do together.
15 math activities for preschoolers and toddlers that teach basic skills:
1. 1:1 Correspondence game
You can make super simple 1:1 correspondence cards with just notecards or card stock and stickers.
Place one sticker on one card, two stickers on the next card, three stickers on the next card, and so on. You can go up to 5 to start with and then expand to 10 if your child is ready and interested.
Give your child small objects that correspond to the stickers. For example, if you use green stickers on the cards, use green Lego pieces.
Show your child how to lay out the cards in a row and put an object on each sticker.
You'll notice there are no actual numbers or counting here. This is an early math activity to help children understand 1:1 correspondence before they even recognize numerals.
2. "Bring me" 5
This is a game you can easily play any time your child is getting bored or antsy—give them a purpose.
Say something like, "I wonder if you can find 5 teddy bears to bring me" or, "Please bring me 7 crayons."
When your child brings you the objects, simply count them together. They will notice if they brought the wrong number and will likely want to correct it—but if not, no worries!
Once your child learns written numerals, try giving them a written cue for the number of things to fetch. Write numbers on index cards, and hand your child a card with the number of things to find and bring back to you.
This has the added benefit of combining movement with learning, a concept used in Montessori to help children really absorb concepts.
3. Take it outside
Use sidewalk chalk to write the numbers 1-10 on the sidewalk.
Help your child think of numbers to gather for each number. For example, they might find one pinecone, two fallen leaves and three rocks.
Many children thrive when their learning environment is moved outside!
4. Guess how many?
Regardless of your own feelings about math, remember that numbers, especially big numbers, can be magical to little kids.
Choose anything you have a lot of—it could be a box of pasta or a bin of Legos—and say, "Hmm, I wonder how many noodles are in that box?" Then dump it out and proceed to count together.
Young children often find it thrilling when an adult makes a big mess, and they equally enjoy creating order from chaos and cleaning up the mess together.
5. Follow a recipe
There is so much simple math involved in cooking. For a toddler it may be as simple as, "Let's add three scoops of flour," but with an older preschooler you can start to introduce the concept of fractions.
For an older child, try letting them complete a recipe all on their own. Choose something forgiving like granola or homemade play dough recipe.
6. Make numbers out of playdough
Who knew playdough had so many uses for math? If your child likes art projects, shaping the numerals from play dough (and adding artistic flourishes) may be a fun way to help them learn their numbers.
Try creating the numbers out of play dough together. Experiencing the numeral shapes in a tactile, hands-on way can really help children absorb the knowledge.
7. Measure volume
Most kids love playing with water so measuring volume can be quite fun.
Use measuring cups (or an inexpensive set of beakers) to help kids visualize and answer questions about volume measurements. Ask, "I wonder how many cups of water would fit in your water table?" or, "I wonder how many tablespoons of water would fit in your cup?"
Simply pose the question out loud and watch them explore the concept.
8. Create a height chart
If you keep a height chart for your child, they will love this one. Help your preschooler make a height chart for their stuffed animals or dolls. This is a fun and simple way to introduce the concept of measurement.
9. Arranging by size
Start to introduce the concept of bigger versus smaller by arranging simple things by size.
You can do this with balls, blocks or even your family's socks and shoes.
10. Practice patterns
Understanding patterns is an integral part of mathematical learning. Luckily, it can be really fun to practice!
You can introduce patterns with stickers. Create a pattern on a piece of paper using stickers from your child's sticker stash, and invite them to create the same pattern on their own paper. Eventually they can begin crafting their own patterns.
This is also fun to do with Legos and Duplos. Build a tower using a color pattern and invite your child to do the same.
Many 3 and 4 year olds are beginning to love games. Bingo is one of the simplest games there is and can be a fun way for children to practice numeral recognition.
12. Play a board game
Even board games that aren't geared toward math—like the classic Hi Ho Cherry Oh—generally involve counting.
There are many other games specifically designed to help children master mathematical skills in a fun way. The Tiny Polka Dot game is a great one because it's simple enough for a 3-year-old, but has extensions for older children as well.
13. Sorting and counting candy
Next time your child has a pile of Easter or Halloween candy, invite them to sort and count it! "Let's see how many of each color are in your M&M bag." If you don't feel like breaking out the candy, you can do this with a bowl of berries or grapes as well.
14. Play a simple addition game
You can easily make your own addition game using whatever toys your child loves like tiny toy cars or little ladybug toys.
Place all of the objects in a basket with a die. Show your child how to roll the die and gather that number of objects into a pile. Then they can roll the die again to get a second number. Show them how to combine the two piles and count them all together.
15. Read about numbers
Books are a wonderful way to spark interest in numbers, and there are a lot of great choices!
Whatever math activities you choose to do with your child, don't forget to bring in real-life math experiences too! Whether it's paying with real paper money or building something together out of wood, there are tons of opportunities for kids to participate in real-world activities that include math. Show them that we use numbers every day!