Can I teach my toddler math?

Teaching is overrated – Baby is learning new things whether you teach them to them or not. And one of the important things they are learning right now is a basic foundation that their understanding of math will be built on. Baby may not be doing long division yet, but they are learning that if they have three crackers, then you eat one, they only have two left. And if they're holding two cars, one in each hand, and then you hand them a third one, they're going to need to figure out a new way to hold them all, because they'll still have the first two they were holding to begin with.

These might seem more like logistical problems than math problems, but right now, Baby is doing the baseline work of learning about the world so that when they move on to more abstract ideas – like numbers or books that don’t have pictures – they'll have an understanding of the basics that they can then build off of.


Of course, when it’s time for Baby to use these concepts in the classroom, they are going to need to be able to turn those crackers into numbers in their mind, which means understanding the way that number symbols represent real-world amounts. Maybe Baby can already “count” – there are hundreds of counting songs, books, videos and apps designed with toddlers in mind, and toddlers are great at memorizing things – but there’s a good chance they hasn’t made the connection between the word five and the five wriggling little toes you’re trying to convince them will be comfier if they wear socks today.

You can help them start to make that connection by casually adding counting into your daily routine – counting the birds you’re pointing out to Baby on the roof or the stairs they're climbing up. There’s no telling exactly when the connection between the counting and the objects you’re pointing out is really going to click, and there’s no reason to rush it either, but by counting, you’re helping to plant the seed for them – and when they do get it, there’s a good chance they'll want to start counting everything, so brace yourself.

Pre-math activities and games

Pre-math concepts and ideas go far beyond counting, though. Activities that you and Baby can do to introduce pre-math ideas in a fun way include:

  • Matching games: Whether it’s a deck of cards with shapes to be matched or the matching socks that are clean and warm out of the dryer, matching games can teach Baby critical thinking skills and help build their memory and understanding of patterns.
  • Shapes: Whether it’s cookie cutters in cookie dough or clay, or it’s construction paper and safety scissors, learning to name and identify shapes can help Baby long before their far-in-the-future geometry class, as it teaches them about patterns, angles, proportions, and physical space, as well as the names of shapes when you talk about these projects together.
  • Comparisons: As Baby understands the physical world around them better and better, you can help make sure they have the language to talk about these ideas they are observing by talking and asking them about objects that are “bigger,” “smaller,” “full,” “empty,” “tall,” and “short.”

At Baby’s age, learning the ideas that will turn into an understanding of math is fun, exciting, and triumphant – and with a little luck, they'll be able to hold onto that feeling as they grow up. 

  • “Cookie Cutter Pancakes.” PBS Parents. PBS. Retrieved September 12 2017.
  • “Counting Games for Babies and Toddlers.” PBS Parents. PBS. Retrieved September 12 2017.
  • “Help Your Child Develop Early Math Skills.” Zero to Three. Zero to Three, February 25 2016. Retrieved September 12 2017.
  • “Math Talk with Infants and Toddlers.” naeyc for families. National Association for the Education of Young Children, May 2012. Retrieved September 12 2017. 

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