Building Early Mathematics Skills


Math is more than adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers. Developing early math skills helps build critical thinking and problem solving skills for young children. Rest assured, there’s no need to hire a tutor; these early skills are often learned during times of play!

As your little one begins moving around to explore, they start noticing the size and shapes of their toys and other objects that surround them. With these activities, children learn the basics of math. They learn:

  • Numbers
  • Shapes and space
  • Measurements, volume and quantities
  • Patterns and predictions

Children with developmental delays may also have delays in acquiring pre-academic skills. Try to introduce concepts and activities appropriate to your child’s level. This will foster success and self-esteem that will enhance the learning process for your child.

Building Early Mathematics Skills – Numbers


Children begin to learn and recognize numbers after hearing and seeing them repeatedly. It is likely that your child will begin counting as a result of memorization first and will then associate the number with real objects later. Understanding that spoken numbers mean real amounts is also referred to as one-to-one correspondence.

Example Activities:

  • Ask “how many” when pointing to objects or number of fingers being held up.
  • Give instructions that include numbers, “Bring me two books please!”
  • Encourage your child to touch each object as he or she counts. Typically children skip objects or miscount as they are learning the concepts.
  • Sing or read books that use numbers.

Building Early Mathematics Skills – Shapes


Circles, squares and even triangles can likely be found throughout your home. Take advantage of those teachable moments and allow your child to safely play with toys and other household objects that safely illustrate various shapes. As a child develops language skills, he can then identify the names of each shape.

Example Activities:

  • Point out and identify common shapes in the house, “The clock is a circle.”
  • Match shapes to each other, such as with a shape sorter or simple puzzle.
  • Construct simple block structures, such as building towers or a “train,” where three or four blocks are aligned next to each other. As a child develops, she will likely add props such as animals, cars or dolls to these structures to create places towns or zoos.
  • Build with different-shaped blocks. This helps children develop an understanding of fractions, such as understanding that two squares are equal to one rectangle or that two halves make a whole.

Building Early Mathematics Skills – Space


Understanding directions such as up/down, over/under, in front of/behind, above/below and, left/right is also very important, helping a child navigate her surroundings and the world. Understanding this concept, also known as spatial relationship, is essential for developing math skills.

Example Activities:

  • Encourage your child to climb/maneuver “over”, “through”, “around”, “in”, and “out” of tunnels and play equipment
  • Play on obstacle courses and playground equipment
  • Use sensory play
  • Drive toy cars in and out of a toy garage and around on roads or tracks

Early Mathematics Skills – Measurement, Volume and Quantity


Exploring quantity and physical attributes such as big, little, length and weight are important to know in building math skills. Putting together objects and taking them apart also promotes the concept of adding and subtracting.

Example Activities:

  • Cook together to promote an understanding of measurement quantities, and early fractions
  • Sort laundry together, putting Daddy’s BIG clothes in one pile and Baby’s little clothes in another.
  • Build with Legos and blocks to develop an understanding of quantity or pour beans into cups of different sizes
  • Take Play-Doh from one formed ball to make another sized ball.

Building Early Mathematics Skills – Patterns and Predictions


Introducing patterns such as shapes, numbers, and sounds and encouraging children to predict patterns help build critical thinking skills. Engaging children in guessing how long something might take or how one thing can affect another (such as determining if a heavier object sinks faster than a lighter object) can be fun for the whole family!

Example Activities:

  • Sort and classify objects by characteristics, such as size, shape, or color. Children will begin with sorting by one characteristic at first. Later, children will learn to sort by multiple characteristics.
  • Stringing beads by patterns, for example, red-blue-red-blue, and beginning to predict what will come next. As a child develops, she will work toward increasingly complex patterns, such as red-red-blue-yellow-red-red-blue-yellow.
  • Play counting games where your child fills in the blanks
  • Pick something your child can predict—will the coin float or sink in a glass of water?

Building Early Mathematics Skills – Concerns


Are you concerned about your child’s early learning abilities? Or is your child showing other developmental delays? If so, contact your child’s pediatrician, family doctor, or teacher. If further evaluation is needed, the doctor or teacher may refer you to an appropriate specialist such as a child psychiatrist, psychologist, or behavioral pediatrician. If you live in California, you may also be referred for evaluation and services to the local Regional Center or local early intervention programs outside of California, if your child is under age three. If your child is over the age of three you could be referred to your local school district. Trust your instincts and seek further evaluation if you have any concerns about your child’s development.


Ginsburg, H. P., Blafanz, R., and Greenes, C. (1999) Challenging mathematics for young children. In Teaching for Intelligence II: A Collection of Articles, A. L. Costa, (Ed.). Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight.

Sandall, S. R. and Schwartz, I. S. (2008) Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.