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Fundamentally, math is a way for us to understand the world, allowing us to quantify, compare, and plan.

Young Children and Mathematics

Fundamentally, math is a way for us to understand the world, allowing us to quantify, compare, and plan. Unfortunately, many of us came to view math as a chore when we were in school, and if we are not careful, we could pass that attitude on to our children.

The good news is children use math spontaneously throughout their day. If you have ever watched young children play, you have probably seen them sort toys (e.g., putting all the lions in one spot and the elephants in another), compare sizes (e.g., “My tower is taller than hers”), and compare quantities (e.g. “She has more crackers than me”). When this happens, you are watching children use their developing math skills.

Five Content Areas

Mathematics skills are an important part of school readiness. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has identified five content areas: Number and operations, geometry, and measurement are especially important in the preschool years, and young children are also developing skills in algebra and data analysis. At this age, children do not necessarily use the mathematical terminology for these concepts. What’s most important is that they start to understand the concepts themselves.

When thinking of math skills in young children, people often focus on how high children can count and their ability to identify shapes. The reason is not because these are the most important skills or even the ones that develop first, but rather, they are the easiest to measure. You can ask a child to count 10 objects and find out fairly easily if they are able to do so. But we can also facilitate children’s mathematical thinking in all areas if we know what to look for.

Here are examples of how young children demonstrate mathematical thinking. When you see them engage in this way, you can simply acknowledge – and sometimes expand upon – what they are doing.

Number and Operation

Concept What child does Adult’s response
Number words and symbols Uses the words for numbers, such as, “I’m three years old.”

Recognizes numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) on a clock.

“Yes, you’re three years old. One. Two. Three.”

“You’re noticing the (numeral) 3. That tells us it is three o’clock.”

Counting Counts objects Give tasks that involve counting, such as setting the table: “We need four forks, spoons, and cups.”
Comparing quantities “I have a lot.” (holding acorns)

“You have more crackers than me.”

“You have a lot of acorns.”

“Let’s count and see if I have more. [Count.] What could we do so we have the same?”

Combining and separating quantities Takes blue Legos from a bin full of Legos

Asks another child to build a tower together because it will be taller if they combine their blocks

“I’m going to take some yellow Legos. You took blue Legos.”

“You two combined your blocks so you can build a really tall tower.”


Concept What child does Adult’s response
Identifying shapes Pointing to picture in a book: “That’s a rectangle.” “I wonder if we could find rectangles in the room?”
Putting shapes together and taking apart Combines shapes (blocks or tiles) “You made a house by putting a triangle on top of a rectangle.”
Spatial awareness “I moved next to you so I could see the book.” “You moved next to me. Now we can both see the book.”


Concept What child does Adult’s response
Compare sizes Compares two paint brushes: “Mine is bigger.” “Your paint brush is longer than mine.”

“How did you know your paintbrush was longer?”

Measuring using standard or non-standard units Puts a stack of Legos next to a toy dinosaur: “This dinosaur is eight tall.” “The dinosaur is eight Legos tall.”


Concept What child does Adult’s response
Patterns (copying, describing, creating) “I made a pattern.” “Red, blue, red, blue. You made a pattern. What color should we put next?”
Noticing changes over time “The tree lost its leaves.” “The tree had leaves on it last week. I wonder what happened to the leaves.”

Data analysis

Data analysis is a little different because most data analysis involves adult actions.

Concept Adult’s response
Organizing “If you think we should have pretzels for a snack, stand on this side of the table. If you want crackers, stand on the other side.”
Comparing “Are there more who want pretzels or crackers?”
Representing Make a tally sheet, and ask children to make a mark under the pretzel or under the cracker. Then talk about which has the most tally marks.

As you can see, math shows up in children’s play in so many ways, and math is so much more than counting. We can foster a positive attitude toward math in young children by engaging with children in the activities that matter to them using everyday language. And in doing so, maybe we can learn to appreciate math as well.


For more resources on School Readiness, click here.

To learn more about St. David’s Center’s Early Childhood Education, click here.

Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood (Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

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