Can I teach my toddler math?

Teaching is overrated – Baby is learning new things whether you teach them to him or not. And one of the important things he is learning right now is a basic foundation that his understanding of math will be built on. Baby may not be doing long division yet, but he is learning that if he has three crackers, then you eat one, he only has two left. And if he’s holding two cars, one in each hand, and then you hand him a third one, he’s going to need to figure out a new way to hold them all, because he’ll still have the first two he was 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 he moves on to more abstract ideas – like numbers or books that don’t have pictures – he’ll have an understanding of the basics that he can then build off of.


Of course, when it’s time for Baby to use these concepts in the classroom, he is going to need to be able to turn those crackers into numbers in his 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 he hasn’t made the connection between the word five and the five wriggling little toes you’re trying to convince him will be comfier if he wears socks today.

You can help him 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 he’s 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 him – and when he does get it, there’s a good chance he’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 his 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 his far-in-the-future geometry class, as it teaches him 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 him better and better, you can help make sure he has the language to talk about these ideas he is observing by talking and asking him 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, he’ll be able to hold onto that feeling as he grows 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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