Math Concepts for Early Learners

Many parents can easily read a book to a 3-year-old, but how about engaging a preschooler in math activities? Current research shows that nurturing math skills at a young age is as important as learning to read. Math and reading abilities are closely linked to academic achievement and improved cognition throughout the school years and beyond.

When children have a strongly internalized understanding of numbers before beginning kindergarten, they are far more likely to demonstrate long-term proficiency not only in mathematics but also in literacy over their academic lives.”  

~ Center for Childhood Creativity, 2018

We use math in everyday activities. Nurturing this fundamental concept and the value of math skills in early childhood may help alleviate anxiety felt by an increasing number of students who struggle with math in school. Young children achieve more when they approach math with a positive view: it can be enjoyable, it's not to be feared, and making mistakes is part of the learning process.

Neuroscientists have shown recently that for people with math anxiety, a fear center lights up in their brain — the same as when they see snakes and spiders — and the problem-solving center of the brain shuts down.”  

~ Jo Boaler, Stanford University Professor

What can parents do to encourage a growth mindset, opens a new window related to math?

Many parents feel uncomfortable with math themselves, let alone developing the skills in a young child. Avoid passing on anxiety and a fixed belief in math abilities to your kids by saying negative comments like "Ugh, I hate math" or "I didn't do well in math at your age."

Teaching math theories to children can be facilitated by understanding how they learn and make sense of math. Current studies reveal preschoolers can grasp how to count, add, and subtract if you ask appropriate questions during familiar moments in the day.

For instance, when trying to put a book into a backpack, "Why doesn't it fit? Maybe the book is too tall? Too big?" These simple questions introduce measurement and the process of problem-solving. Or introduce relational concepts by singing a song together faster and slower.

Questions that are open-ended and authentic will prompt conversations and encourage kids to describe their thinking out loud. Inquiries that don't have right or wrong answers are some of the best. Learning through experience and discovery will ignite curiosity and create a positive attitude to math, reducing the anxiety often caused by pressure to memorize facts and formulas.

Any adult can help promote math concepts by connecting and playing with kids. Blocks, puzzles, and games are excellent ways to make learning fun. And a sly, intentional wrong move that allows your child to correct your blunder demonstrates that mistakes are not a make or break situation!

Math skills to develop from toddler through early elementary


Representation  -- The use of words, pictures, symbols, and objects that give math meaning in daily life.

Talk   Use a puppet to indicate a one-to-one correspondence with objects.

Activity   Ask your child to set the table. Placing a napkin, utensils, or other items on the table for each family member cultivates one-to-one correspondence (one number for one object) and cardinality (the last number in a series is the total number in that set) skills.


Number sense -- The ability to count forward accurately, and backward when older.

Activity   Invite your child to count a collection of things such as erasers, blocks, or small toy animals and show the counts on paper. Draw the items, or a circle for each item, and place them on the corresponding object to display an accurate count.

Activity   Use songs to teach counting, addition/subtraction, and vocabulary (e.g., sing a rhyme such as “Five little birdies, watching others soar. One flew away, then there were four…”).

Game    Number pizzas: Tell your child, “I’m a chef and I’m making pizza.” Set red plastic chips on a paper plate and ask “How many pepperonis do I have?” Next, “Can you make your pizza have the same number of (or matching) pepperonis as mine?” This game teaches concepts of similarities and differences – the same number can be organized in a different way.

Problem-solving -- The ability to think through a problem and recognize there is more than one path to the answer. It means using past knowledge and logical thinking skills to find a solution.

Talk   Use “number talk” to encourage your child to reveal their thought process when providing an answer.

Activity   Give your child a shape sorter to drop a block inside a shaped opening. Urge a trial-and-error method to keep them trying until they find the correct fit.

Spatial Sense -- The introduction of shape, size, space, position, direction, and movement concepts that become the basis for geometry in upper grades.

Activity/Direction   Give instructions such as "Step forward and step backward" and "Go up the stairs and down the stairs."

Activity/Shapes   Cut out large shapes from construction paper and ask your child to jump or hop on a shape (e.g., “red square”). At tidy-up time, ask them to name shapes as they put toys away.

Observation/Estimation/Comparison  -- The ability to compare and guess the size or amount of objects, and demonstrate the meaning of words like more or less, bigger or smaller.

Talk   Ask “Do you want the small bagel or the big one?” or “Point to the stack of blocks, books, etc. that has more.”

Activity   Read a picture book and ask your child to identify the biggest and smallest [figures] in the pictures.

Game    How Many? Put an assortment of small toys in a jar, ask your child to count the toys, and write the number on paper. Combine with movement by asking them to run/hop/skip across the room to or from the jar.


Measurement -- The ability to find the length, height, and weight of an object.

Activity   Bake simple cookies or brownies with your child (also incorporates time measurement skills). Bonus: make cookies in different shapes.

Patterns (numbers, shapes, or images that repeat in a logical way) -- The ability to predict and understand what comes next, make logical connections, and develop reasoning skills.

Activity   Read-aloud a picture book with repetitive text. Pause to let your child fill in the blank and continue the pattern.

Activity   Make patterns with snack foods (e.g., pretzels, raisins, Cheerios) or candy (e.g., Skittles or M&M’s).

Activity   Go on a scavenger hunt looking for patterns in nature (e.g., circular patterns in flowers, rings on tree trunks, or patterns on insects such as ladybugs or butterfly wings).

After observing and reflecting on the thinking process used by your child, adjust activities accordingly. For instance, if a child can subitize (recognize quantity without counting by hand) but does not know the number, try playing a game. Label each object with the respective number to help your child memorize the number.

Another way to fuel enthusiasm for math is through literature. At the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, opens a new window, a committee of mathematicians, librarians, teachers, and early childhood experts select titles that “communicate mathematical ideas or problems and succeed as outstanding books.” Books are honored in five age categories each year with the Mathical Book Prize, opens a new window, initiated in 2015. The following booklist offers Mathical prize winners and other stories to promote math concepts in young children.

MCFL Kids: Early Math Concepts

List created by CorteMaderaStaff_Judi, opens a new window

View Full List

The overall goal in teaching math concepts to toddlers and preschoolers is to integrate math into daily activities and make it playful. Help your child realize that math is engaging and fun!


Anderson, Jenny. (2017, November 13). A Stanford professor says we should teach more math in preschool, opens a new window. Quartz Media [website]

Author unknown. (2016, February 25). Help your child develop early math skills, opens a new window. Zero to Three [website]

Berdik, Chris. (2016, July 20). Mix a little math into that bedtime story, opens a new window. The Hechinger Report [newsletter]

Bouffard, Suzanne. (2017). The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children. Penguin Random House. Chapter: Doing the Math, p 73-89

Center for Childhood Creativity. Reimagining School Readiness Toolkit, opens a new window. Bay Area Discovery Museum. [resource guides]

Howes, Katey. (2018, February 3). Ten picture books about observation and perspective by Katey Howes, opens a new window. Nerdy Book Club [blog post]

Kamentz, Anya & Turner, Cory. (2020, September 8). Math anxiety is real. Here's how to help your child avoid it, opens a new window. Mind/Shift. KQED [online article]

Newhouse, Kara. (2018, March 12). 10 Books to spark a love of math in kids of all ages, opens a new window. MindShift [KQED News program]