Monday, December 7, 2020

Math Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers

 A list of ideas and tools to teach math skills to toddlers and preschoolers. This would be helpful for homeschooling preschool

I write a lot of about teaching my babies to read, because I think it is a hugely important fundamental skill. However, I realized that I don't write nearly as much about teaching my kids math at home. Just as I wanted my kids to be good readers and love reading, I wanted them to have good number sense and feel confident with math skills. So far, I think I have succeeded with both kids. I thought others might like me to share some toddler and preschool math activities.

Now, I think math sometimes gets a bad reputation of being this really hard, intangible thing involving sitting at a desk doing drills that all kids have to get through. Math can be engaging for kids. While I'm going to share a bunch of different activities we've done, I always advocate for parents to pick and chose activities based on what works for their families. No activity is worth it if it's just going to cause stress or pressure (for either parent or kid).

Identifying, Matching and Sorting

  • Parents use "math" concepts in everyday conversation naturally. We talk about quantitative concepts like size, first and last, the middle, long and short, more and less, many and few as we go through our day. Describing attributes of objects is also pretty common throughout life with a toddler. I just tried to build on these ideas.
  • Matching is something that can be modeled pretty early on. You don't actually have to know red/green, tall/short, etc. in order to know that two things are the "same" or "different." I started with toddler magnets and just did a lot of modeling. I'd show two pieces and talk about whether or not they "matched" or were the "same." You could use blocks, silverware, trucks, dolls or anything else you have matching pairs of. 
Matching game pieces

  • Start with matching things that are identical, and then work up to matching things that go together (capital and lower case, chick to hen, etc.) In many of my printables I have shadow matching activities, where the goal is to match a picture of an object with its outline). Many early toddler puzzles are essentially matching activities. Playing memory not only involves matching, but some memory and spatial awareness practice.

Mitten Matching
Matching puzzle pieces
Matching pictures shapes to words
Shadow Matching
Printed memory with some favorite characters
Honeycomb Matching printable

  • I did "teach" my kids colors (see my colors themes) and then shapes (see my shape themes) pretty early on, mostly as a way to organize activities. Once there's some knowledge, it is easy to do a bunch of different sorting and matching activities. You can sort toys, snacks, rocks, printed pictures, etc. into just two categories, but can also add more categories as skills improve.
  • Some attributes you can work on identifying, matching and sorting
    • Colors
    • Shapes
    • Patterns (polka dot, stripes, etc.)
    • Texture
    • Opaque vs Transparent 
    • Soft vs Hard
    • 3D vs 2D
    • Flexible vs Rigid
    • Light vs Heavy
    • Number of sides
    • Size (Big/small, tall/short, Narrow/Wide)
    • Types of toy/animal/food
    • Loud/quiet
Matching balls to domes
Chairs and cups
Matching cubes to color dots
Little and Big
2D and 3D shapes

  • Get physical! Put your containers of things to sort on different sides of the room. I cut a bunch of shapes out of felt and had my little guy roll a color or shape die and then go to that felt piece (free template and printable dice here). You could add in actions like skipping, jumping etc. Draw shapes or color blobs in sidewalk chalk. Stretch up "tall" and then be very "short." Throw a ball up "high" and then roll it down "low."
  • To add another dimension to sorting, I got some Venn Diagram rings (you could just draw some on paper or posterboard). With my toddler I just use two rings with simple categories (attribute blocks or math counters work well) but I could use more for my oldest (either in math or other subjects).

Venn Diagram with red and trains

  • Sequencing is another easy activity to set up with action figures, blocks or printables. Toddlers can sequence by size or even rainbow order. It's an easy opportunity to talk about "big, bigger and biggest" and other size vocabulary. You can go from shortest to tallest or tallest to shortest. My little guy will do this with pictures I print, but prefers it with Inchimals or his stacking garages/cars. Cuisinaire rods would be great for older toddlers who wouldn't have a choking risk.
He will sequence Inchimals all on his own

Lining up math cubes by height

Sequencing elephants by size (Mommy and Me ABCs)
  • Another easy activity would be to line up five toys and talk about positional words like 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, last.
  • Older kiddos can also sequence by the order in which things happen. We have some sequencing puzzles, but the internet is full of printables. You could also just talk through it as you talk about your day or visit to a friend's house.
  • Archer loves to sequence numbers and letters also. It is a good opportunity about what comes "first," "next," "before," "after" and "last."

Finding the number that is hiding (there's a picture covering some words and he puts a number tile over it).

Counting Activities

  • It sounds simple, but some of the best advice I read in all my early math education books was to just count everything. Count toys, count steps, count cheerios at breakfast. However, the caveat is that kids need to learn that each number word actually stands for a specific quantity (one to one correspondence). Just learning to say the numbers in order is not the same as learning that three stands for a quantity of three things. An easy one to one correspondence activity is to get out an ice cube tray and some pom poms (cotton balls, beads, cheerios, etc.) to put into each well.

  • Break out some popsicle sticks and make tally marks as you count.

  • Play counting games!
    • Physical activities like calling out a number and jumping/clapping/stomping that many times. Throw in a die so you can count the dots before you jump.
    • Roll and Cover - I have made some and the internet is full of these. You roll a die (or two for older kids) and cover up something with the matching number.
    • Draw a number tile or roll a die and put that many beads on a pipe cleaner (or beans in a cup, or clouds in the "sky")
Clouds in the sky activity

Pony beads on pipe cleaners
Matching tiles to birthday candles

    • Number Tile Cards - for a lot of my themes, I have made cards with different numbers of objects on them that you match to number tiles (you can also just print the numbers).
Cupcake number tile cards
    • There are also a lot of toys and beginner board games that involve counting.
Chutes and Ladders
Using blocks to explore how the same number of blocks can be configured different ways
    Super sorting pie

    • My little guy wants to make bigger and bigger numbers, so I got him some place value blocks. He's only 2.5, so we're working on the idea that ten ones make one ten and ten tens make on one hundred. Sometimes I'll write numbers on his mat and have him match what I write. Sometimes he will put the blocks on and I will write the numbers to match what he did.
      Place value play
Skip Counting
  • Skip counting is something fun to do after counting. I taught my boys to count by 10s first, then 5s. (Counting by 25s is a great precursor to counting money.) However, I still wanted to make sure my kids understood that what they're counting goes with groups of numbers, so I tried to find ways to make it tangible. I get out our number board and placed the tiles on what we're counting. We use the abacus to count. I put pony beads on pipe cleaners in groups of ten to help us in counting. I use place value blocks to show how ten ones equals one ten.
Groups of ten pony beads on pipe cleaners
Skip counting with a number board
Playing with place value blocks

Developing Spatial Sense

  • At an education conference I once learned  that one of the biggest predictors of math and science achievement in school is the ability to mentally manipulate three dimensional objects. To start those skills I talk about things like size, shape, space, direction and position and where/how things are relative to other things. "The blue ball is behind the big box."
  • To take the vocabulary a step farther, we played this printable hide and seek game with positional words. There are some similar games you can purchase.
  • Building toys are great for learning how things look when they're stacked, next to each other, behind each other, rotated, etc. Simple blocks and tiles and be turned and rotated into different shapes.
  • Template Matching - Another thing I've done with my boys is a lot of visual spatial activities where you have to build something to match a picture. Some things can be done right on the template, like pattern blocks. Others, you have to have the template next to what you're building. I've used both free printable (made by myself or others) and store bought toys for this. In modeling and scaffolding, I do a lot of talking about the different pieces relative to one another. As they get better, I let them do more or all of the activity
  • Puzzles! There are so many kinds with varying number of pieces. Garage sales and thrift stores always have some cheap. Find some that your kiddo enjoys. Build with them, talk through your reasoning.


  • Patterns seem to come up in every subject in school. I feel like in a lot of ways, early pattern learning is more of a matching activity. Eventually little ones can predict what comes next in a pattern, and then what is missing in the middle. You could use blocks, rocks, dominoes, math counters or any other toy of which you have multiples to practice making patterns.
Using ice cube trays to make patterns. I do one row and he fills in the second.
Same idea with an egg carton. I put paint in the top wells and had him put corresponding balls in the bottom.

Counting bears with homemade pattern cards. The internet has a bunch you could print or you can even buy some.
Wooden dominos with printable pattern cards
Learning Links (cards from but I can't find the direct link)
Pattern blocks with a pattern card from Confessions of a Homeschooler


  • Measurement can mean lots of different things, but it does not always have to take place in "normal" units. You could use markers to measure how long the table is. You can count how many steps from the front door to the mailbox (and compare the different family members).
  • If you want a little more structure, I did a Units week in our Alphabet in Simple Science
  • Some measurements to play with
    • Height/length
    • Weight/mass (they're different, but mass can still be introduced with a preschooler)
    • Volume 
  • Bake some cookies (or a cake or anything else delicious)! Baking is a great time to not only talk about units, but also fractions.  You can talk about the dry measuring cup vs the liquid measuring cup, teaspoons vs tablespoons, etc.

  • Play with measuring cups! The dollar store has these cheap if you're worried about them getting lost. I keep a set with our water tables. The kids have also played with them in the tub and with sensory bins.

  • Play with the bathroom scale. How much do you weigh? What if you're holding a toy? What if you're standing with your sister?
  • Hand them a measuring tape. Both my boys have randomly loved a fabric measuring tape I have. 
  • We also had a balance when my oldest was little. We practiced measuring the same objects and comparing different objects. It didn't survive the moves (7.5 years between kids), so I just got my youngest this balance game that has numbers.

Beginning Tables and Graphs

  • Being able to read and interpret graphs is important for understanding the news or medical information, as well as taking tests like the ACTs. Now my goal is not to train my toddler for the ACTs, but as a former science teacher, I'd like my kids to be good consumers of information. Therefore, we start with easy tables and graphs so it is intuitive.
  • Roll a die graphing. Several of my printables have these, as well as other places on the internet. Your kiddo doesn't have to be ready to write to do these. You can write for them, they can use squiggles, do a dot markers or stickers. You can each pick a character and compete to see who gets all of theirs fastest.
Easter graphing with Do a Dot marker
Frozen graphing with stickers.
  • Kiddos ready to write can my tally charts to record outcomes. You could do this with coin flips or number of days in a month or anything else you can think of to record.

Adding and Subtraction with Toddlers

  • Addition and subtraction are easy to work in when you're talking about how many you have. "You have two cheerios, how many do you have when I give you two more? What if you eat one?" Since I want my kids to understand what the operations mean, I try to make sure we do arithmetic with actual amounts or objects, not just symbols.
Addition with Inchimals. We usually just do this with the blocks and do not use the booklet.
Quibix addition. We generally just do this as we're playing. I only get out the symbols occasionally. He loves these blocks and spontaneously adds them and subtracts on his own (thank you Numberblocks!!).
Using math cubes and number tiles.  Once again, we usually do this without the symbols.

Time Concepts for Toddlers

  • Time is tough one for toddlers because it isn't tangible. Like everything else, you can start by talking about time. Here are some concepts you might want to try:
    • Morning
    • Afternoon
    • Night
    • Earlier
    • Later
    • Tomorrow
    • Yesterday
    • Today
  • Calendar Time! Both my boys enjoyed using their magnetic calendar as toddlers. We'd sing the days of the week and the months of the year songs while I pointed to each word and it didn't take long for them to learn them.
  • Telling time. My oldest was about three and a half when I first introduced a learning clock (it has a red hour hand with corresponding red numbers and a blue minutes hand with corresponding blue numbers). My youngest loves all things numbers, so I introduced it at two and a half. He likes to play with it and we practice having him change the time. However, we're mostly only doing either minutes or hours, not both at the same time. The clock came with puzzles, so he insisted on doing those too. I made sure to only get out the o'clock or half hour ones.

Math Songs and Rhymes

Math Concept Books

Math Screen Time

  • Sometimes I need a shower or to make dinner, so my toddlers have gotten screen time. I try to choose the movies and apps we use in an educationally advantageous way. Here are some good math resources.
    • Numberblocks (on Netflix, my youngest is OBSESSED, but has learned a lot)
    • Math 3-5 App (one of my favorite toddler math apps, but it used to be cheaper)
    • Dragonbox Numbers App
    • Bugs and Buttons App
    • Osmo Numbers and Tangrams (my 2.5 year old still needs some help)
    • Mathtacular DVDs - so these are three hours long and intended for a classroom. The guys voice gets annoying because he's trying to be so over the top for kids. My oldest LOVED them though. He could sit and watch the whole thing straight through if I let him (at around 3 or 3 and a half I think?). We now own all four DVDs and they've all been well loved.

Math Toys and Tools for Toddlers and Preschoolers

  • Buying all of these is not necessary. You can do so much with what you already have. You can also print a lot of resources. We have a lot of these because I started collecting when my oldest was a baby. I have gotten so many great things second hand! My kids also tend to get educational toys for birthday and holiday gifts. 

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