Teaching Early Math Skills – Creative And Inexpensive Ideas

What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you hear the words “math teacher”? Do you smile automatically because you remember a great soul who made that light bulb in your brain glow or do you painfully recall a bespectacled, strict and cold teacher who intimidated you when you were young?

We use math every single day and yet it also seems to intimidate many of us. We either hate it or love it. I belong to the former group because God blessed me with some smart math teachers. Oh! Of course they were fierce and we trembled in their presence.

Do you remember how our Indian parents used to threaten that they will make us take care of buffaloes if we don’t study well? Well one of my math teachers used to threaten us that he would personally see to it that we are sent to take care of donkeys. ūüėĮ¬† Of course we were too naive and fell for that.

Another was an expert in making the class squirm with her pop quizzes. We tried to shrink ourselves and hide so that her skinny fingers would skip us when she is searching for her next prey.

But both of them made us fall in love with math. When they taught, we understood. Everything was easy. We had quite a few ‘aha!’ moments. Was it the fear we had for them that made us pay extra attention in their class or was it the real life examples that they narrated to explain the concepts? I am pretty sure it was the latter. Their lectures had a fair sprinkling of stories, examples and real life situations. The love for math that they instilled in my heart is still there to this day.

We use math when buying groceries. We estimate quantities while cooking. We track our bank accounts. We count the number of days we have till a deadline. We measure, count, estimate and predict using logical reasoning every single day. Math is an integral part of our lives. Then shouldn’t we teach math to our toddlers when they are involved in day to day activities? Math, I believe should not be restricted to classrooms and worksheets.

I have met a lot of creative mothers online and in real life. All of them are talented, creative and very eager to teach their toddler. But who has the time to do research when they have a busy toddler? So I decided to write down a list of activities that they can do with their toddler.

These activities can be done with everyday household items during regular  day to day activities without spending an extra penny.


There are a lot of math manipulatives and toys that can be purchased to teach early math skills. Some of them are really good. But this article will focus only on activities that do not involve any purchase.

Parents can help children develop math skills by using the following informal activities to enable them to recognize and understand sizes, shapes, patterns, numerals and quantity.

Learning math through everyday activities


  1. Counting steps as you go up or down.
  2. Counting number of cars as we walk through a parking lot.
  3. Counting number of trees in the park.
  4. Count number of people waiting at the bus stop
  5. Count the number of cupcakes / rotis on the dining table.
  6. “Get one plate and one cup for each family member”.
  7. Share the cookies  Рone for you and one for me. (one to one correspondence)
  8. You have two eyes, two ears and one nose. How many toes do you have?
  9. You have one more cookie than me.
  10. You have 4 spoons and I have 2. How many do we have altogether?
  11. How many fingers am I holding up.
  12. You have 5 candies and you eat one. How many will be left?


Introduction to geometry starts with shapes, size, volume, mass, space, position and direction.

  1. Going up the stairs. I am sitting next to you. You are playing under the table.
  2. Getting down from the bed
  3. Counting number of sides of furniture.
  4. Cover the big vessel with big plate and the small cup with small plate.
  5. Cushion is square, bucket is circular.
  6. Your dress has swirls, my dress has dots and daddy’s shirt has stripes.
  7. Using a string or palm to measure the length of  furniture
  8. Point to shapes of windows and doors in buildings
  9. Guessing which object is longer / taller or heavier. While playing this guessing game, parents should be aware that estimating length or weight is not easy for children so this is just an exercise to become familiar with words like more, less, bigger, smaller, more than and less than. Your roti is smaller in diameter than mine.
  10. Learning volume while cooking – 2 cups of water and 1 cup of flour.
  11. Stack 2 small milk cartons so it is as tall as one big milk carton.
  12. Cut strings and ribbons and compare length, thickness and color. Sort them from longest to shortest.
  13. Pick a pant that matches your shirt.
  14. Bucket / bath tub is empty, half full or full.
  15. Let us make a square or triangle dosa today for a change.
  16. Moving the sofa is difficult because it is heavy. Can we try moving your chair?
  17. Is the beach bucket heavier when filled with sea water or is it heavier when filled with beach sand?
  18. Build sand castles with cubes and cylinders.
  19. Manipulate shapes to learn the relationship between them.
    1. Two semi-circles can make one circle.
    2. 2 squares can make one rectangle
    3. 2 triangles can make one square.
    4. 2 triangles can also make one bigger triangle.


Patterns help them identify shapes, colors, images and sizes that repeat. Unlike the guessing game, this game requires keen observation and a logical approach. Children are encouraged to predict which shape or size will come next. Start with 3 dimensional physical objects and progress to 2 dimensional patterns printed on paper.

  1. Buttons, lego blocks, shape sorters, macaroni, cereal and beads can be used to create patterns. They  can also be used to count sides, describe colors and compare size.
  2. Cut colored paper into various shapes and tape them to the floor. Ask your child to hop on the green square followed by red circle and green square again. What comes next? Start with primary colors and then proceed to secondary colors.
  3. Sorting helps visually discriminate between objects and is necessary for identifying patterns. Buttons, pompoms, small toys and regular household items can be used to sort based on color / shape or size.
  4. Sorting laundry based on size / shape or color of the dress.
  5. Let us sort and put the cars in that box and the trucks in this bin.
  6. Match the shoes in the house and arrange them on the shoe rack.
  7. Rhythmic claps while singing a song.
  8. How many different leaf shapes can you find?
  9. That carrot slice is smaller in diameter than the tomato slice. But it is bigger in diameter than that slice of olive.

Awareness of the space around them

Helping children to observe, gather, classify and analyze information.

  1. Each house has a number. Do you know our address?
  2. Is our house at the end of the street? How many houses does our street have?
  3. Some houses are bigger than other houses
  4. Which house has a longer lawn?
  5. Can you please pour more into that cup please?
  6. Let us count our steps as we walk to the car park.
  7. Mommy and daddy have a phone number. Let us call daddy’s number.
  8. Explain the significance of each color in the traffic light. We can walk when the green man appears and we should stop when the red man appears on the screen. Learn to identify and obey the road signs.
  9. Allow the toddler to play inside a cardboard box. Make a tunnel with the cardboard box / make a tent using bed sheet and dining table chairs to create awareness of space and size of her body when the toddler squeezes through the tunnel.
  10. Do you know how tall you are?
  11. Shake it shake it baby – Move your hand up. Move your hand down. Turn right. Take a step to the left.
  12. This lego block is as long as your pinky finger. That lego block is shorter than your tall finger.
  13. Is it a hot day today? What will you wear when it is cold or raining outside?
  14. Take one step forward and two steps backward.


  1. Clocks and watches tell time.
  2. Calendar tells date, month and year.
  3. You napped for 30 minutes.
  4. Let us count the seconds it takes for us to reach the mailbox.
  5. Mailman comes before / after / during your lunch time.
  6. We eat breakfast in the morning.
  7. The sun sets in the evening.
  8. Tomorrow we are going to the park. Yesterday we went to the shop. (It is very easy for a child to get confused between yesterday and tomorrow. So patience and repetition is necessary)
  9. We have to wait 20 more days for your birthday.
  10. We will go to the mall on Saturday.

Note: Please choose items appropriate for your child’s age. Avoid small and dangerous items that can be swallowed.

While interacting with your child, use math terms as much as possible.  Laying down a strong foundation in math during preschool will help when your child grows up.


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