Math Foundations

Teaching Young Children About Opposites and Prepositions (Locations in Space)

What Are Opposites & Prepositions?

When you went to elementary school did your teacher ask you to: 

  • Open and use your math book and then put that one away?
  • Open and use your science book and then put that one away?
  • And maybe open and use your geography book and then put that one away, too?

I once had a conference presenter ask us to point to the math section, then the science section, and then the geography section of our brains. He reminded us that the brain processes information all together – it doesn’t have separate compartments for math, science, geography or any other topic.

Since families are children’s first teachers, we have the chance to see that they learn best through their daily life experiences, and they learn concepts best by doing hands-on activities. 

This article uses that knowledge to promote children’s skills in these two basic, but very important, math concepts:

  • Comparing properties of objects that are opposites (big & small, heavy & light, hard & soft)
  • Spatial orientation – using prepositions to describe location (over & under, above & below, up & down)

Teaching Young Children About Opposites

Along with identifying objects by color and shape, children can learn to describe and compare things with other features. Offering hands-on activities with different objects to touch and move lets kids physically sort them by what they have in common – this makes groups or “sets”.

Grouping objects into sets gives children the foundation for putting numbers into sets, too. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and other higher-level math operations require a basic understanding of what sets mean and how to make them.

Hands-on activities that compare objects also introduce children to the abstract concept of comparison, and helps them to build an “opposites” vocabulary. Examples of ways to sort objects by opposites:

  • Big/small
  • Straight/curved
  • Long/short
  • Rough/smooth
  • Wide/narrow
  • Thick/thin
  • Fat/skinny
  • Hard/soft
  • Heavy/light
  • Full/empty

The 3 Best Toys to Teach Your Child About Opposites

The puzzle pieces have both photos and words, and only the pieces that match correctly fit together.

This version of an opposites puzzle game is especially useful for playing with younger children. Since they will be unable to connect the pieces together that are an incorrect match, they will quickly gain the skills to recognize which are the correct photos that fit together. As adults and older siblings also read the cards as everyone plays together, this game promotes early literacy, as well! 

This set includes 40 matching opposite cards in a hinged storage case. It will be important for adults to choose a small number of matching cards, such as 10, when introducing the concept of matching to younger children. As they become proficient with making matches of items that are opposites, increase the number of cards for them to match. 

Choosing a version with a hinged storage box encourages the children to easily put the cards away and then find them again for the next play session. This is a great way to promote organization skills!

This game has 100 matching go-together and opposite cards (50 pairs) and are water resistant and smudge proof. You will want to start with smaller numbers of matching cards with younger children, as with the 40 card set.

Some families include snacks and drinks when playing together, and you know your children well, so the fact that this set has cards that are water resistant and smudge proof may influence your decision to go with this particular set.

Prepositions & Talking About Space

Teaching children about where things are gives them a vocabulary for the “language of space”.

When young children understand the meaning of words that tell them where to go or where to look for something they gain an important foundation for following directions. 

Teachers may ask children to line up behind each other to form a line. Or to pick up a toy under a chair. Children who have a prior knowledge of what behind and under mean will be more successful at following the directions they were given. Examples of prepositions are: 

  • Above
  • Below
  • Over
  • Under
  • Beside
  • Next to
  • Behind
  • In Front Of
  • Up 
  • Down
  • Inside
  • Outside
  • On
  • Off

These words represent abstract concepts of location. There is no object called an “up” that you can hand to someone. To understand that word you have to put an object “up” on a table or shelf. Again, it is crucial to provide hands-on activities that have items that children can observe, touch and move so they can make sense of what these words mean. 

You may notice that many prepositions are also opposites! Here are some excellent books that will give you even more ways to teach your children the concepts of opposites and prepositions.

Four Highly Recommended Books About Opposites and Prepositions

by Anna Kovecses

This interactive book includes a character named Little Mouse and has flaps for children to open. A picture and word are on the outside of the flap and their opposites are under the flap. Young children really enjoy books that have flaps to open, and will quickly learn to say the words that are the opposites.

This hands-on version of looking at a book is excellent for promoting early literacy and a life-long love of reading.

by Mark Weakland

The author uses football photos to visually explain his “opposite” questions such as:

“Is the goal line near or far?”

“Is the stadium empty or full?”   

    Adults and children alike will enjoy this sports-oriented version of how the abstract concepts of opposites and prepositions have a real-life application to something they can participate in as athletes or spectators. Reading this together provides a great opportunity to discuss how these kinds of questions can be created that are relevant to other sports, as well.

by National Geographic

In addition to providing beautiful photos of things that are opposites, this book includes games for children to play. Preschool aged children will particularly enjoy discovering hands-on activities for learning the math and literacy concepts that are so abstract.

Brian P. Cleary and Brian Gable

This colorful children’s book has comical cats that teach about prepositions and opposites. Laughter brings families together, and we tend to learn more readily and build stronger memory skills when we are having fun. Sometimes reading books with silly but meaningful content are the most enjoyable way to teach and learn new concepts. Everyone can have a good time!

Opposite & Preposition Activities That Are Easy to Create

1. Put 3 quarters and 3 dimes on a table. Ask the children to put the big ones together and the small one together. Explain that they have created sets of three based on the sizes of the coins. Or use toys and other objects of different sizes.

You can also trace the money on paper and make multiple copies so that you could increase the number of items for the children to sort into sets without having to raid your piggy bank!

2. While your children help you fold laundry have them make a pile of each family member’s socks. Ask them whose socks are bigger? Whose socks are the smallest?

3. Take a walk around your neighborhood and ask your children questions such as:

    1. Which is bigger – the house or the car?
    2. Which is softer – the leaf on the tree or the sidewalk?

You can also ask questions at a park such as:

      Which is taller – the picnic table or the slide?

4. Put a favorite toy under a chair and ask toddlers to find the toy. When you praise them when they find it, emphasize the word under.  Example: “You did it! You found the toy I put under the chair!”

5. Use visual cues to help children learn about prepositions. Example: When you say to them, “Come sit beside me on the couch,” pat your hand on the couch where you want them to sit as you say it.

6. Play hide and seek with the children and emphasize the relevant preposition as you take turns finding each other. “Oh, you were behind the door!” “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought of going under the sink!”

Children can begin learning these concepts at very early ages. You can use comparison and prepositional words in the context of what you are doing with them in your daily lives. Compare that your hands are bigger than theirs. Tell them you are lifting them up as you put them on the changing table. You may discover how easy it is to promote their success in learning these abstract concepts!

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

Close Menu