More than one, two and three: early childhood math

Tips for teaching young children about math.

Help your young child develop of love of math while enhancing their skills. | MSU Extension
Help your young child develop of love of math while enhancing their skills. | MSU Extension

Young children are building beliefs about what math is, what it means to know and do math, and about themselves as mathematical learners. Parents and caregivers of young children greatly influence children’s thoughts about math, as well as their performance in and attitudes towards math. As a result, adults serve an important role in helping children explore math concepts. Encourage children to investigate and experiment with mathematical concepts. Spend time observing, listening and watching children. Build on children’s strengths and enjoy the process!

Children learn math best when it is hands-on, collaborative and fun! When children are participating in hands-on math, they are using manipulatives and other three dimensional objects that may or may not be intended for the purpose of teaching math. For example snack time is great time to use manipulatives like crackers to teach math skills.

Another way to make math less frustrating and more fun for children is by having them work collaboratively. Have children work on math skills in pairs or even small and large groups to help support each other’s skills. Expand on children’s daily classroom activities to support their math exploration and always keep math experiences fun and engaging!

As children grow and mature, they will develop new mathematical skills and concepts. A summary of a typical developmental timeline of mathematical skills is provided below. As with all early childhood skills, children’s growth and development will occur at a variety of ages.

Children ages 2 to 3 may:

  • Recognize very small numbers, such as one and two.
  • Visually determine if small groups have more, less or about the same in terms of quantity.
  • Recognize how many objects should be present if one is taken away or added from a very small group.
  • Match simple shapes (circle, square, triangle).
  • Understand and use ideas such as over, under, above, on, beside, next to and between.
  • Act out patterns, such as moving forward, back, forward, back; recognize repeating patterns such as a block standing, then laying down, then standing.

Children ages 4 to 5 may:

  • Maintain one to one rule when counting.
  • Understand the cardinal rule: the last number in counting tells how many there are in the group.
  • Use counting to compare two collections of up to five objects.
  • Solve word problems with sums of up to five using objects.
  • Recognize and name variations of the circle, square, triangle and rectangle.
  • Build a simple but meaningful map with landscape markers such as a house and trees.
  • Copy simple repeating patterns, such as AABAABAAB.

Children ages 5 to 6 may:

  • Begin to count; both individual objects and classes of objects.
  • Use counting to compare two groups of objects, even if the objects they contain are a mixture of sizes and types.
  • Solve word problems using counting strategies such as counting two fingers then two more to solve the question “If I have two apples, and you give me two more, how many apples would I have?”
  • Recognize and name shapes in various orientations, sizes and types.
  • Start to recognize the parts of shapes, such as sides and angles.
  • Separate the “core” of a pattern, such as “AAB” in an AABAABAAB pattern.

There are many wonderful books that support children’s mathematical skill development. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following titles to support children’s mathematical skill development and offers Family Book Sheets to support with concept development:

  • Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews.
  • More, More, More by Vera Williams.
  • Animal Antics from 1 to 10 by David Wojtowycz.
  • The Shape of Things by Dayle Ann Dodds.

MSU Extension also offers trainings for parents and caregivers on early childhood math skills and other important concepts for young children’s academic growth. For more information about programs near you, ideas to extend favorite children’s books and much more, visit the MSU Extension Early Childhood Development webpage.

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