Have you ever noticed how many songs, rhymes, and poems for little ones involve counting or numbers? “Alice the Camel” anyone? Even cutesy baby games such as “Peek-a-Boo” and “I Spy” have an important place in teaching foundational mathematical concepts to our youngest learners. Children are born mathematicians. Long before they are school-aged, our children are already busy developing an understanding of early math skills. Their early years are all about making sense of their environment, and they delight in exploring and investigating the world around them.


We know that kids, and almost everyone, learn best by doing, and that’s exactly what these toys have in mind. When children are playing with these types of toys they are learning the concept of classification (organizing things into groups) by figuring out what shapes are the same and which ones are different. They discriminate, match, group and categorize objects according to criteria such as shape, size, weight, length, and height.

But children don’t need plastic toys to help them learn these ideas; they can classify everyday objects in the home by helping to match shoes or socks. You can point out the different shapes you see when on a walk together. When folding laundry, compare the grown up shirts to their little shirts, talk about which is bigger and smaller. When bringing in groceries, have kiddo learn about weight by holding the bag of bread or the bag of canned goods. Most important is to engage with your child in fun ways to nurture the learning that is happening naturally.

Once children start organizing their world around classification concepts of bigger vs. smaller, heavier vs. lighter, it won’t be long before they begin ordering objects from biggest to smallest, heaviest to lightest, etc. This is called seriation and is the foundation for counting. You’ll see your little ones do this when they stack these rings or when they sort the family’s shoes from biggest to smallest.

You can continue to support the development of seriation concepts by comparing and ordering containers of items you have around the home. Ask your child, “Which has the most? The least amount? The middle?” Doing chores together that require counting such as setting the table can also be fun. Have your child count the number of people in your family, and then ask, “So how many plates do we need?” Sing number songs such as Alice the Camel, read books that involve counting forwards and backwards, like “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed!” Count down to important days like holidays or birthdays on a calendar. Make learning about numbers fun and engaging all the while helping to build your child’s understanding that numbers represent real things.

Also beginning in the concrete stage of learning about real things, conservation is the understanding that an object or a given amount of something remains the same even though its appearance may change. At its most basic level is a game of “Peek-a-Boo” with a baby who giggles when you hide your face and then magically reappear from behind your hands. We can see the ongoing development of our child’s understanding of conservation when we have those incredibly fun discussions where kiddo is adamant that the sandwich cut into four pieces is more than the same sized sandwich cut into two halves. For sure and certain kiddo will understand that they are the same one day, but until they are ready there may be no convincing them otherwise. A solid understanding of conservation gives children the foundation upon which to learn relationships in later math such as 10=5+5 is the same as 10=7+3, etc.

Finally, children in this early childhood development stage of 0-6 love to learn basic spatial (top, bottom, around, middle, centre, corner) and positional concepts (1st, 2nd, 3rd … next, last, before, after). They learn these ideas initially through playing with blocks, figuring out how objects fit together, and by stacking things. Kids find out pretty quickly why the triangle is usually at the top of the tower and not the bottom. Let your child explore these concepts by providing him/her with various sized containers to play with at a sand table or during bath time. Build forts, crawl through tunnels, create patterns out of everything, sing songs such as “Going on a Lion Hunt” (or better yet a more PC version) but sing action songs that include can’t go over, can’t go under, gotta go through it!

Children are born curious about their world and naturally work to make sense of it. As parents, caregivers and teachers we need to ensure this curiosity continues well into their childhood. Let’s do that by giving them our time and engaging with them through games, songs, stories, and playtime to keep learning fun.


Here are some other references to give you even more ideas!

 Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families


Gross, Carol M., Science Concepts Young Children Learn Through Water Play

Project Math Access: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Math At Play, Madison Metropolitan School District

Tammy Dewar is a teacher in the Metro Vancouver area, and is expecting her first baby this summer. 


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