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Why Is Math Important in Early Childhood?

(1) Early Math Sets the Foundation For School Success

Early learning sets the foundation for your child’s academic experience – from kindergarten and beyond. Shaky foundation? Bad news for the skyscraper you’re building. Okay, sure, you (hypothetically) say, early learning is important. But why is early math education so special?

Well, to start, studies suggest that early math skills are one of the best – if not the best – predictors of a child’s success in school. That means that children who enter kindergarten with a better grasp of basic math skills are likely to be more successful academically – even years later. What does that mean for younger children? Well, toddlers need to learn the basics – like number sense, spatial awareness, and problem-solving – before they can begin to tackle more complex math in school.

(2) Math Is Everywhere

Having a solid understanding of math is important for your child’s academic success. But math isn’t just a school skill. Math is everywhere around us – it’s a “real world” skill, too.

You use math when you buy a bag of tomatoes at the farmer’s market, or when you measure ingredients in a recipe.

You use math when you figure out how many plates you need to set at the table based on the number of people there, or when you estimate whether you have enough food in the fridge to skip the grocery store tonight.

You might not always notice when you’re using math (until the numbers start to get too big and you need to pull out the calculator on your phone!) But math – for better or worse – is part of life.

That means that helping your little one develop early math skills won’t just nudge them toward academic success. Working on basic math skills will also help your toddler develop critical “real world” abilities as they grow.

What Are the Most Important Math Skills For Toddlers?

Toddlers should be working on math skills that (1) are age-appropriate and (2) introduce the types of math skills practiced in kindergarten. The idea is to help your toddler develop the skills they’ll need in school without pushing them past their capabilities or stressing them out.

Remember: Early learning should always, always be playful and fun. (Worksheets can wait!)

Here Are the Most Important Math Skills For Toddlers to Work On:

  • Numbers: Counting verbally, beginning to count a small number of objects, recognizing some numerals
  • More vs. Less: Asking for “more” and knowing when something is “all gone,” differentiating between small groups of objects vs. larger groups of objects
  • Spatial Sense: Identifying spatial relationships between objects and using appropriate vocabulary to describe them, manipulating toys effectively in space (completing a puzzle, stacking blocks…)
  • Patterns: Understanding and following daily patterns and routines (e.g. knowing that bedtime comes after story time), beginning to understand and create simple patterns during play
  • Matching & Sorting: Beginning to match similar objects (baby zebra goes with mama zebra) and sort objects into simple categories (based on color, shape, size, etc.)
  • Measurement: Exploring measurement by filling and emptying containers during play

PS. Child Development Is Not One Size Fits All

I know you’ve heard this before, but kids develop at different rates. Don’t freak out thinking that your toddler ~needs~ to develop all (or even most) of these skills by some arbitrary date. They don’t.

Some of these skills are way more advanced than others, and your child has plenty of time to pick them up on their own schedule. Instead, use this list to help give you an idea of where your toddler is now vs. what the next step in their math journey may be. Then, focus on meeting your child where they are and working with them to continue learning and building upon their knowledge and skills.

 

What Not to Do When Teaching Your Toddler Math

You’re eager. I get it. But slow down a second and make sure you’re not making these well-intentioned mistakes in the name of your toddler’s pre-academic growth.

Pressuring Your Toddler to Succeed

Stressing over your child’s learning – and, worse, passing that stress onto them! – will only hurt your little one. High levels of pressure aren’t good for anyone, especially children, and expecting your toddler to achieve X, Y, or Z academic goal by some arbitrary deadline will do both of you way more harm than good.

Instead? Let your toddler be little! Give them lots of love and affection, let them play (that’s how they learn best, anyway!), and let them develop on their own schedule.

Pushing Your Toddler to Do Worksheets

Repeat after me: Worksheets are not developmentally appropriate for toddlers. Period.

Even though building with blocks may not ~feel~ like learning to you, providing your toddler with plenty of time to play is the best thing you can do for their development. After all, toddlers learn through active exploration, play, and real-life experiences – not “homework”.

That brings us to our next common early learning mistake –

Using Screen-Based Apps or Games to Teach Your Toddler

You may be wondering, Are all those shiny ~learning apps~ a good way to introduce basic math skills to my toddler? 

Sorry – probably not. Even though your little one might seem to be engaged in these “early learning” games, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re learning anything from them.

These apps are typically not developed by early learning experts and generally aren’t as effective as active, child-directed play when it comes to your child’s learning outcomes. While there may be value in using high-quality learning apps with older children, the best kind of learning opportunities for toddlers are – still – screenless.

How Can You Help Your Toddler Develop Early Math Skills?

Now that you know what not to do, let’s chat about a few things you can do to help your toddler develop and improve their early math skills!

Use Math Talk With Your Toddler

Find ways to weave basic math concepts and ideas into everyday conversations with your toddler:

  • Practice counting together: “Let’s count the buttons on your shirt! One, two, three…”
  • Describe spatial relationships: “Teddy is on top of your bed, and Octopus is next to him!” 
  • Practice classifying and sorting objects:Let’s put away all of the big toys first.” 

Make math talk a part of your daily conversations with your child, and watch your toddler organically begin to understand (and use!) early math vocabulary and skills.

Check out this article to learn more about using math talk with your toddler!

Find the Math in Your Everyday Routine

You use math every day – from sorting the laundry to measuring ingredients for a recipe. Give your toddler plenty of opportunities to join in and engage in everyday math activities!

Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your toddler to help you put the dishes away (classifying and sorting)
  • Find a simple recipe and cook together (measuring)
  • Recruit your toddler to help out with snack time“Can you get one cheese stick for you and one for your brother?” (number sense and one-to-one correspondence)

Get creative – learning opportunities are everywhere!

Provide Your Toddler With High-Quality Math Toys

Finally, stock your toddler’s toybox with engaging and purposeful math toys. Again, don’t worry about investing in screen-based “learning” toys. Some of the simplest toddler toys – like stackers, blocks, and wooden number puzzles – are best when it comes to helping your child develop early math skills.


Looking for the best math toys for toddlers? Keep reading for ideas!


What Are the Best Math Toys for Toddlers?

Here are a few of the best math toys for toddlers. These toys will help your toddler develop those oh-so-important early math skills, from number recognition to spatial understanding, and more!

Note: This shopping guide contains affiliate links, meaning I may receive a commission off of purchases you make using these links at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help keep The Toddler Playbook running & ad-free – thanks for your support!


This colorful nesting puzzle that’s also perfect for open-ended play



This gorgeous geometric stacking toy that will teach your tot about shapes, sizes, and spatial relationships (oh, my!)



This cute (and challenging!) stack & balance game for animal lovers



This simple color matching toy for toddlers



This creative shape sorting toy for your lil truck lover



This super-cute number puzzle



These cult-classic magnetic blocks that will change your life



These Montessori-inspired toys perfect for sorting (and counting, too!)



This peg board stacking toy that kids love



This open-ended rainbow stacker (that will also look gorgeous on your little one’s shelf)



And, finally, these gorgeous magnetic wooden blocks you’ll love at least as much as your little one does




Tods ♥ Math

Math with toddlers doesn’t have to be boring. And you definitely don’t need worksheets, flashcards, or learning apps to help your toddler develop important math skills.

All you need to successfully teach your toddler early math concepts and skills is (1) a little bit of knowledge of early math milestones, (2) patience, and (3) the willingness to let your toddler explore and play – the way they’re meant to learn!

♥ Meg

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