Math Foundations

Math Skills and Concepts for Early Childhood Development

Afraid of math? I was, too. So many of us grew up with the misconception that boys’ brains are more mathematically-oriented than girls. Historically girls were discouraged from taking higher-level math classes and entering math-oriented fields such as engineering. We now know that the ability to acquire math skills is not specific to any gender or ethnicity, and that there are many complicated factors influencing student success in math.

What does “math” look like when we are talking about infants, toddlers and preschoolers? What in their everyday life environments can be used to help them learn mathematical concepts, most of which are abstract?

We’ll focus on promoting children’s skills in these four basic math concepts:

  • Counting
  • Recognizing numerals (symbols that represent numbers)
  • Recognizing shapes and colors (properties of objects)
  • Sorting objects by shape and color


Young children can learn to say numbers without knowing anything about how they relate to quantity. They can readily memorize number words by repeating what they hear someone else doing with rote counting. Once they know number words, and are provided with opportunities to count real objects, they will begin to make connections between the words they know in relation to how many objects they see.

Recognizing Numerals

The next step after using real, hands-on objects for them to count is to introduce children to numerals, which are abstract concepts. If you are standing next to me, and I suddenly ask you to hand me the numeral two, you can’t. But you can show me two fingers or two hands that the numeral 2 represents.

So children learn to identify numerals best by engaging in activities using real objects, and repeatedly having opportunities to matching objects to numerals they are shown.

Shapes and Colors

Shapes and colors are also abstract concepts that need to be taught by using hands-on objects. You can’t hand me the color “yellow” but you can give me a banana that is yellow. You can’t hand me the color “red” or the shape “octagon” but you can point to a stop sign, an object that is both red and an octagon.


By having children physically sort objects by their color and their shape, they have opportunities to make the connections that some objects have certain properties in common, and there are words they can use to describe what these are. All yellow cars have the color yellow in common; all circular buttons have the shape circle in common.

Games and Toys that Build Math Skills

There are wide varietties of toys, games and technology you can buy that provide hands-on experiences that will wire young children’s brains to be able to learn abstract math concepts. Some of my favorites are:

Counting and Number Recognition

Learn to recognize numbers and functions (addition, subtraction, etc).

Recognize letters and numbers with space to draw and repeat.

Match numbers and concepts, and identify quantity.

Learning to recognize fractions as part of numbers, and matching the meanings.

Shapes, Colors and Sorting

Recognize and match shapes in an engaging puzzle.

Shape matching, also great for fine motor skills!

More advanced shape matching and coordination.

Electronic Games

Interactive electronic book with starter math concepts. 

More than 400 activities in 16 books for math, reading, life skills and more.

Children's Books that Build Math Skills

There are a great many children’s books that include math themes, such as counting, colors, shapes and numbers. Reading a book with a theme related to a toy or game they will do next builds their interest in that activity they will do after the story. Some great books for young children that have math themes are:

Matching concepts and numbers with beautiful illustrations.

Award-winning counting book with one of kid’s faborite animals

Learning numbers with an engaging lift-the-flap book.

And you can make your own counting books, as well.  For instance, if your children are interested in cars, you can make a book with 1 car on the first page; with 2 cars on the next page, etc. You can help draw the cars, or cut out pictures of them from newspapers or magazines, or print them out from the internet.

Math Activities That Are Easy to Create


  • While playing with babies touch and count their toes and fingers aloud. A finger play called “This Little Piggy” provides an ending with a gentle tickle. But you can easily make up your own counting story.
  • When rocking babies to calm them or soothe them to sleep, create a song that has numbers. Make up any tune and use words that include a favorite toy or stuffed animal such as, “One little, two little, three little teddy bears”.


  • Place 3 small spoons (teaspoons or smaller) and 3 big spoons (tablespoons or larger) on a flat surface. Ask  toddlers to put the 3 small spoons together and also the 3 big spoons together. Explain that each group has the same number – 3. Then also explain that each group has the same size – they are all small or all big. Increase the number of spoons as the children become proficient at matching them.
  • While folding laundry invite your toddlers to make piles of clothing that are the same type, such as socks. Or clothing that is the same color, such as t-shirts or pants. Count the items in each pile, encouraging your toddlers to repeat what you say.
  • Have toddlers hand you toys that they like to play with. Lay the toys out in a row and point to each one as you count them. Encourage the children to say the numbers with you. At first limit the row to two, then three, then more.


  • When preparing food that is easy to make, write down the ingredients and steps on how to prepare it on a piece of paper. If you write “1 cup flour” draw a picture of a measuring cup and label it “1 cup”. Show the children the recipe as they help you make the food. Young children can learn concepts more quickly when they see visual cues.
  • Have your children help you set the table by counting how many people will be sitting there, and then have them put the correct number of plates and silverware by each seat.
  • Cut a piece of paper that is large enough to place objects on into 5 pieces. Write one numeral (number) on each piece, labeling them 1 to 5. Draw the correct number of circles on each piece, under the written number. Provide your children with small items that will fit on each piece of paper, such as raw beans,  pebbles, plastic animals, etc. Count the circles on each piece and ask the children to put the same number of items on the paper.
  • Give your children a paper or plastic bag and take a walk with them around the yard or neighborhood.  Have them collect rocks that interest them and take them home. Count the rocks with them and write the number on a piece of paper. They can also sort the rocks by size, color and texture as they play with them.

PBS also has an excellent site with math games that provides a wide variety of fun activities for young children to do on a computer or tablet here.

Look around your house and outdoor environment to find other things that your children can count and sort. You are your child’s first teacher and you can provide the best opportunities to promote your child’s math skills before they start school and for many years after.

Karen is an Early Childhood Specialist with more than 40 years of experience in teaching, consulting, and curriculum development for young children.

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