How To Encourage Your Preschooler's Love of Math Through Play

If you are suddenly homeschooling your preschooler, the thought of teaching math to your child can be daunting. Many of us grew up dreading math class. Even if you enjoy math, teaching abstract concepts to your child can be tricky. You may have never planned on homeschooling, but here you are, and you want to get it right.

You’ve tried flashcards, but your kid isn’t grasping the concepts, only memorizing. You’ve bought workbooks, but your child is more interested in running around the kitchen table than sitting down to work through a counting problem. You are frustrated, and so are they. You know the importance of early learning. You don’t want your child to fall behind. What are you missing? How can you bring fun into your child’s preschool math activities?

Learning Through Play

The answer is to let your child play, and play with them when you can. A young child is full of curiosity. Learning is happening all the time. Don't stress about your preschooler's education. Put down your curriculum plans and just watch. The more you observe your child in their play, the easier it is to see the learning. Play is a powerful way for your child to observe and learn about the world.

Does this all seem a little too hands-off? No worries...your role here is important. And it’s easy. You are your child’s guide. Your mission is to observe and provide. Watch what your child gravitates to. What are their interests? Do they love sorting by color? Or maybe stacking? Let their interests guide your instruction.

Setting Up Your Preschooler’s Homeschooling Space

Having interesting and engaging objects in your playroom or on your homeschooling shelf can set the stage for a variety of math learning activities. Activities that are fun, but that also teach.

These hands-on toys, or manipulatives, can aid your child in learning abstract ideas such as length and width. They can be used for counting. Manipulatives can even introduce more complex geometric and algebraic concepts, setting the stage for true math understanding in later years.

Mathematical concepts, from spatial reasoning to early algebra, can be incorporated into everyday play. These concepts will carry them into early elementary and beyond. And it’s easy to sneak in mathematical concepts when you have interesting materials. Here are some great toys for preschool math learning and how to use them.

The 5 Best Manipulatives for Preschool Math Activities (and how to use them)


Three-Dimensional Shapes

Three-dimensional shapes are excellent for developing spatial reasoning skills. A cone is a complex shape to visualize. But if you are holding a cone in your hand, it is easy to turn it over and see how it’s base is a circle. 3D shapes allow your child to fully examine the shape from all angles. How does it look from the top? What shape do you think you’ll see if we were to cut this cylinder in half? 

An excellent example is the Montessori geometric solids. They are a great size for little hands. They are also all one color and roughly the same size. This allows the child to focus on the main task you are using them for...examining shape. But you don’t need to get all fancy with your materials. Any representation of three-dimensional shapes will develop your child’s understanding.


Magnetic Blocks

Magnetic blocks are perfect for teaching a variety of math concepts. They can be used for building and stacking, igniting a child’s creativity. Older siblings also love building and exploring with magnetic blocks, creating even more learning opportunities for your preschooler.

Building with blocks opens up all kinds of discussions about size and counting. Which tower is taller? How many blocks does the tall one have? Do you think the taller tower has more blocks than the smaller one? Let’s count.

Magnetic blocks are also an excellent introduction to magnetism. While they play with the magnets you can help them label the concepts they are observing. Looking for a super fun magnet activity? Compete in a race by holding a magnet and using it to repel another on a table. The first to “push” their magnet off the table wins.


Your Child’s Favorite Toy Collection

Is your kid obsessed with stuffed animals? Or dinosaurs? In my house, we have an entire tub of monster trucks. In the last few years, I have learned the names of more dinosaurs and monster trucks than I ever knew existed.

A collection of toys is a great way to practice counting, adding, and subtracting. We often set up monster truck races using a racing bracket. This has been a surprisingly fun way to introduce the concept of half. Going from 8 competitors to 4, 4 to 2, and then, finally, a winner, makes the concept easy to see.

Collections are also excellent for sorting. Which dinosaurs walk on two legs and which on four? How many brown dogs do you have? How many trucks can fit on this track? Kids love to talk about their favorite things. Keep their attention and sneak in some math with their favorite toys.

Mushie Nesting Cups
Stacking/Nesting Cups

This classic toy is an excellent way to introduce size to your preschooler. The cups can be arranged by size, smallest to largest. Then mix them up and try largest to smallest. You can also explore spatial language by placing the cups on top of, and then inside of, each other.

Stacking is always a favorite activity. The taller the better. And then knock it down (monster trucks come in handy here as well) and repeat. You can also place other small toys inside of your cups. How many toys can you fit in the larger cups? How many in the smaller? Follow your child’s lead and explore. You may end up having a tea party with your child’s stuffed animals and that’s ok too! Another fun math opportunity. “How many cups will we need for our cute little animal guests?”

Girl playing with clay
Modeling Clay

Every parent knows this stuff. Honestly, I avoid it a lot of the time. It somehow always ends up in the carpet. Even when I set it up in rooms with no carpet. How does that even work? But, this is a great option for math learning, so let’s all power through it.

Kids love to make, so get artsy and do some math. Even if your kid only makes snakes and snowmen, use these creations to talk size. Snakes can be longer or shorter. Snowmen are built with the largest ball on the bottom.

Modeling clay is also a great preschool activity for introducing fractions. Snakes and other shapes can be divided in half. And then in half again. Count the new pieces together. How many smaller pieces did the big snake make? Are they all the same size? Whether you make it yourself or buy the classic in the yellow cup, modeling clay is an exciting time.

Not Just For Preschool Math

You may have noticed above that these homeschooling preschool activities teach way more than just math ideas. Magnets and building blocks are great for introducing scientific concepts and early engineering. Modeling clay can introduce art concepts.

Manipulatives also expand your preschooler’s vocabulary. Be specific with your descriptions and explanations. A preschooler’s mind is wide open...don’t worry that something seems too advanced. Your four year old can learn the difference between an obtuse and acute triangle, but only if you use the language yourself.

Have Fun!

Your preschooler loves learning. Set up the space and observe. Throw out your agenda, trust the process, and follow their lead. You will be amazed at the learning you see all around.

What’s your favorite preschool math activity? And which manipulatives are a must in your homeschooling room?

Resources:

[1] https://dreme.stanford.edu/news/spatial-reasoning-why-math-talk-about-more-numbers

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03004430.2013.79915

[3] http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=123