7 Simple Ways to Boost Your Preschooler’s Math Skills

You hold your breath. Another block on the tower! Your heart almost bursts with pride. But, you’re worried too.

There might be a bright future as a scientist or engineer ahead, but how do you make sure your prodigy doesn’t miss out on that exciting future? You know math is important. What if it isn’t your thing? Or, maybe math is your thing, but education isn’t.

They say, “kindergarten is the new first grade.” How do you make sure your brilliant child has a strong start in important subjects — like math?

The best preschools are pricey. What if you don’t have the cash? Maybe you thought you would have one parent stay home to focus on the kids, but dishes and laundry are encroaching on the the time you meant to spend on learning.

School is coming quickly. You want your precious little one to be successful. Is the price a joyless childhood?

If you are reading this, you probably either loved math and want to pass that love on to your child, or you struggled in math and want to make sure your child has a better chance to be successful than you did. Either way, the good news is that you can help your child get a strong start in math, without spending a fortune or devoting excruciating hours every day.

What math does your child need to know before kindergarten?

Preschool math falls into three easy categories. First, your child needs to know how to use numbers. This involves counting (usually to 20), and identifying the corresponding numerals. Second, your child needs to be able to identify basic shapes: circle, rectangle, square, triangle. Finally, preschoolers should be comfortable copying and making new patterns.

To find out exactly how far your child should be able to count by kindergarten, contact the school where you plan to enroll them. Most have a list they would be happy to give you.

The secret sauce of fun learning

You don’t have to bribe your child with candy or the promise of screen time later. When learning is fun, they’ll ask for a chance to learn, and fuss when it’s over.

What makes learning fun? Here’s how to find out. When you have thirty minutes to spend, ask your child to choose three activities that the two of you could do together. Going outside should be an option, but not screen time. Write down their suggestions, and do the top option that is feasible at that moment.

Chances are your child’s choices fall into the following categories: music, building, art, words, logic, movement, socializing, or nature. These categories correspond to Gardner’s eight intelligences. Educators believe that everyone learns easily in two or three of these areas.

Does your child ask for a dance party? They probably have intelligence in movement and music. Does your child want to play “Go Fish” and then discuss every move? They probably have intelligence in socializing and logic.

Don’t worry if logic wasn’t your child’s choice. Everyone can access math, just like everyone can access literature. Besides, there is another factor at play.

In addition to having life long areas where they learn easily, your child is going through developmental stages. To figure out your child’s current developmental stage, think about what activity or phrase, is driving you crazy right now. Is it, “Watch me jump?” (Gross motor task) or “Let me put all the pebbles in this cup?” (Fine motor task).

The secret to making learning fun is to introduce it in terms of what they find interesting right now. This will be a mix of their life long natural intelligences and current developmental tasks.

But what do you do with this information? Below is a list of fun, simple math activities based on the areas where children are naturally growing and developing in their preschool years.

But first, let’s make sure you understand counting.

How you should count with your kids

If your child breathlessly rattles off, “one, two three, four, five”, but isn’t associating those words with things, they aren’t counting. Sorry.

In order to really count, you have to count things. In preschool world, you have to count concrete things, because abstractions don’t exist yet. Concrete things are the ones you can touch, see, smell, taste, or hear.

To teach your child to count, have them look at a group of objects (start with two) and give it a number. Or, let them touch each object and give each a number starting with one.

Fun activities for learning preschool math

There are many ways to count, and see shapes, and make patterns. Here are some easy ways to get started.

Based on the thirty minutes of play you offered your child earlier, pick an activity that fits YOUR CHILD’S interest. Introduce it when you have a 10–30 minutes and they are in a pretty happy mood.

#1 Build math sense (literally)

Appeals most to kids who enjoy building and logic.

When researchers go looking for what preschool activities make the biggest difference in future math ability, they find blocks. Studies have shown that playing with blocks correlates with with higher performance in high school math. Building that tower was an important accomplishment after all.

Preschoolers who play with blocks become high school students who do better in math.

Here are a few extras you can throw in if you want to know that your child is getting the maximum educational value out of their block time.. Remember, your child’s enjoyment is the secret sauce of great learning. Be sure you’re both having fun.

You can count the blocks in a tower, or lined up in a wall. You can place blocks in groups and identify how many there are.

Today you could say, “Look, the side of this block is a square”. Next time, ask what the shape is. They probably won’t know, but get in the habit of asking before you tell. Put two blocks together to make a rectangle. Outline circles and triangles with the edges of blocks.

Make a pattern of “block space block space”. Say, “Hey, look at this pattern I made,” then name the parts. When that pattern gets boring, try two blocks and a space.

#2 Size up some sticks

Appeals most to children who enjoy nature or art or are in a collecting developmental phase.

Head outside and look for some great sticks (Or great rocks). If you aren’t sure what constitutes a great stick, ask your nature loving kid.

When you have a decent collection, you can line them up from largest to smallest. Intentionally say things like, “Which stick is the longest?” “This stick is shorter, but fatter.” You’re building math vocabulary. Looking at the progression builds a framework your little naturalist can use for calculus class someday.

Put the sticks in groups based on what number your child can count right now, and name the number of sticks. Or, touch each stick and name it a number starting with one.

Ask your nature loving child to find some fantastic sticks.

Use the sticks to outline the basic shapes.

Break the sticks into two or more sizes, and make patterns: “Short long short long,” “short medium long,” or “short short long.”

#3 Make a crafty pattern

Appeals to children who enjoy art, building, or are in the fine motor development phase.

Contrary to what you may have been told, math and art are not opposing abilities. Leonardo DaVinci is the quintessential example of someone who excelled at both, but there are modern examples as well. Just search “math art prints.”

There are many math art activities, but making a bead necklace is a classic that children will do over and over. You’ll need some string, and some colored beads to put on the string.

For your first math activity, let your child pick just two colors. Help them thread the beads on to the string alternating the two colors. On a future necklace you could, use three colors, or put two of one color before putting one of the other. These are the pattern skills needed for preschool.

Count the beads as your child strings them on the necklace. Or, use ten different colors to practice counting to ten several times as you make the necklace.

After the necklace is made, stretch it into a circle, square, rectangle, and triangle and ask your child to name the shapes. Or, name a shape and ask them to make it with their necklace. If your child wants, let them wear their necklace so they can use it to explain their knowledge to random people throughout the day.

#4 Count on story time

Appeals to children who enjoy words and language or stories.

If your child loves to be read to, double points. You’re nailing kindergarten readiness in reading as well as math. There are many fun math picture books on the market. Jerry Pallota, Ano, Cheryl Sczersky, and Ellen Stoll Walsh are some favorite math book authors at our house.

You can use any picture book to work on math skills. Just stop and count the characters or things on the page. You can let your child point while you count, or let them count independently.

Look for shapes you can name in the pictures too. You will even find some patterns, if you stay alert.

#5 Mind the music and the math

Appeals to most children who love music.

Music is based on the math of rhythm and the math (and science!) of pitch and volume. If your child has learned to find beats by dancing or clapping, it will be easy to teach counting.

Most music we listen to these days has a four beat count, so start by counting to four repeatedly. If counting music is a new skill for you, count the beats, adding more and more in sets of four: four beats, eight beats, twelve beats etc. If you’re comfortable counting measures, do that: ONE two, three, four, Two two, three, four.

Point out patterns of repeated notes, or short notes and long notes. Spend just a little time on learning math, and a long time enjoying the music, and your child will amaze you with what they retain.

#6 Keep math moving

Appeals to kids who love move.

“But, my kid won’t sit still and learn,” you say? Then let them run and learn!

If your kid loves to move, count their movements!

Challenge your child to figure out how many times they can jump, or how many laps around the parking lot they can run. Make a hopscotch, and name the numbers as you jump on them.

Draw shapes on the ground with chalk or tape. Join your child in running around them or jumping in and out of them as you name them.

Practice patterns by hopping on one foot, then the other. Then try hopping two hops on one foot, and two hops on the other. Let your child make up a pattern to try.

#7 It’s all fun and games

Appeals to kids who enjoy logic or socializing.

I think that playing games may be to math what reading is to language development. There is so much variety and depth available in card games and in board games.

Favorite games at our house that explicitly cover math skills are Uno (number naming), Sum swamp (counting and addition), and Dominoes (counting and number sense).

At our house, we’re fanatical about Connect Four. We also love Mankala, Checkers, Chess, Blokus, and Go Fish. These games are great for building pattern skills and logic skills that will be used in future math classes.

Talk about shapes by looking at the shapes of your game pieces. Connect Four and Checkers are round, the boards have squares, and playing cards are rectangles.

Start with just one activity, and be amazed as math skills blossom.

In your excitement about all these amazing ways to teach math, don’t try to actually do them all. At least, don’t do them all now. You’ll frustrate that brilliant little mind.

Instead, pick one thing your child will think is fun. Prioritize a little time on a regular basis (like 10 minutes, 3 times a week) to do that activity.

When the charm wears off, which might be immediately, move on to something different. It’s ok if you never move on though. Just slowly let the math grow more complex so it doesn’t get boring. There are different ideas here for different kinds of learners. Math is just one topic.

Pick one activity that fits you and your kid. Try it today.

With a little consistency, your child will make noticeable progress. You can have peace of mind, knowing that you are preparing them to take the next step on their learning journey, and enjoy it too.


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