Early Math Matters: A Guide for Parents of Preschoolers

Early Math Matters: A Guide for Parents of Preschoolers

As the parent of a preschooler, you probably enjoy experiencing the world through your child’s eyes (and hands and feet!) as he or she explores and learns with great enthusiasm. And as your child’s first teacher, you can start teaching the basics of reading, writing, and math. Giving preschoolers a solid foundation in early math literacy is critical to their future academic success, not to mention how important it is to their day-to-day functioning. This is especially true given the increased demands of the math curriculum in our elementary schools today. If your child attends preschool, you can expect to see greater emphasis placed on teaching early math as preschools ramp up to prepare students for elementary school math.

What do you need to know and do to help your preschooler learn about math? To help you get started, we’ll explain how preschoolers learn about the many dimensions of math so you can build on that .You’ll learn what questions to ask your child’s preschool about their math program and instruction. We’ll suggest some fun and educational math activities and games to do with your preschooler. And finally, we’ll explain how to partner with preschool teachers to make sure your child is on track and experiences math as being “real” and useful throughout the day — at school, at home, and while at play.

How preschoolers learn the many aspects of math

Most preschoolers, even without guidance from adults, are naturally interested in math as it exists in the world around them. They learn math best by engaging in dynamic, hands-on games and projects. Preschoolers love to ask questions and play games that involve the many aspects of math. The table below lists the key aspects of preschool math, along with simple games and activities you can use to help your child learn them.

Math Aspect Games and activities

Number sense

  • Count food items at snack time (e.g., 5 crackers, 20 raisins, 10 baby carrots).
  • Use a calendar to count down the days to a birthday or special holiday.
  • Help your child see the connection between a numeral like "5," the word "five," and five days on the calendar.
  • Practice simple addition and subtraction using small toys and blocks.
  • Play simple board games where your child moves a game piece from one position to the next.


  • Have your child name the shapes of cookie cutters or blocks.
  • Arrange cookie cutters in patterns on a cookie sheet or placemat. A simple pattern might be: star-circle-star-circle.


  • Let your child help you measure ingredients for a simple recipe - preferably a favorite!
  • Measure your child's height every month or so, showing how you use a yardstick or tape measure. Mark his or her height on a "growth chart" or a mark on a door frame. Do the same with any siblings. Help your child compare his or her own height to previous months and also to his or her siblings' heights.

Math language

  • Talk through games and daily activities that involve math concepts.
  • Have your child name numbers and shapes.
  • Help him or her understand and express comparisons like more than/less than, bigger/smaller, and near/far.

Spatial relations

  • Play games where you direct your child to jump forward and back, to run far from you or stay nearby.
  • Use songs with corresponding movements to teach concepts like in and out, up and down, and round and round.

Your child may grasp (and enjoy) certain math concepts more easily than others; some variation in children's math awareness and skills is to be expected. Even so, by age 3 or 4 your child should understand certain math concepts and be able to perform related math tasks.

If you or your child's teacher believe your child is having an especially difficult time with early math, you may want to consult your pediatrician and perhaps contact your school's Director of Special Education for a diagnostic screening at no cost to you (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).