Did you know that you can easily help your little one learn math skills? 

Children’s brains are ready to understand number concepts from a very early age. If you use math words in everyday conversations with your toddlers and preschoolers, they’ll do better in math and reading when they reach elementary school.

To help your child, simply talk about numbers, count out loud, and use math words as you go about your day! 

In this guide, you’ll find fun and easy math activities that you and your child can do anywhere, from driving in your car or shopping for groceries, to doing laundry or setting the table.

Scroll down to read these tips or watch videos with animated explanations. Each section also includes an illustration you and your child can explore together. On those, look for speaker icons to hear each illustration’s prompts read out loud. To make it easy to find math words and concepts to say out loud with your children, we’ve also highlighted them throughout this page. 

Have fun talking math with your children!

Developed by Highlights in partnership with Too Small to Fail with support provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Learn More »

Count By Numbers

Your child is beginning to develop an understanding of math—even before she can say number words out loud. Once she can say number words, she can begin to match the words to set size and then count the set. For example, “Look at the spoons. There are three! One, two, three.” You can help her do this by counting out loud together.

You can also help her understand that a number word stands for a specific amount. When waiting in line, say, “Let’s count the people in front of us. One, two, three. There are three people in front of us. Now it’s your turn. How many people are behind us?” If your child answers incorrectly, instead of sharing the correct answer, say, “How did you get your answer? Let’s check if that’s right. Can you think of another way to solve that problem? Let’s count together.”

Here are other simple ways to talk math with your children when you’re in town.

Out and About

  • When you're in the car, count the number of traffic lights you pass and repeat the total. “We’re passing one, two, three, four, five. That’s five lights we just passed.”
  • Explain that numbers can belong to buildings. “See the house numbers we’re passing?” Ask, “What numbers do you see?”

When Riding the Bus or Driving in Your Car

  • Say, “Let’s count how many cars pass by while we wait for the light to turn green.” Another time, count trucks or buses.
  • Talk about vehicles with different numbers of wheels. How many wheels does a car have? How many wheels does a bicycle have? A tricycle? A scooter?

Around Town

How many cars do you see?
How many doors do you see?
How many white dogs do you see?
How many brown dogs?
How many dogs are there all together?
What else will you count?

What's Big, What's Small?

Have you ever thought about how often you count, measure, estimate, and compare when you’re cooking? Measuring one cup of this and ½ cup of that teaches your child how to compare the relationship of parts to wholes.

Your kitchen is rich with fun and yummy ways your child can learn the basics, and here are some easy ways to start.

Preparing Food

  • Ask your child to compare the sizes of measuring spoons. Use words like smallest, small, medium, big, bigger, and biggest to describe each spoon.
  • Line up the fruits you’ll use for fruit salad from smallest to largest. Try starting with a blueberry and ending with a watermelon.

Setting the Table

  • Think about plate sizes. Ask, “Do we need big plates or small plates for this meal?”
  • Put your spoons down on the table and ask, “Who has a long spoon? Who has a longer spoon? Who has the longest spoon?”

At Mealtime

  • Show your child a whole piece of toast and cut it in half. Then say, “These two pieces are the same size. They’re called ‘halves.’”
  • At snacktime, say, “We have an orange and an apple for a snack. Which one is wider?”
  • Have your child hold two different pieces of fruit in her hands and ask, “Which one is heavier? Which one is lighter?”
  • At dinner, compare the size of your food portions. Say, “You have more carrots than I do. I have fewer carrots than you.”

In the Kitchen

Which plant is the tallest?
Which bowl is the widest?
Which drawer is the narrowest?
What else is large?
What else is small?

Sorting Shapes

Your young child has a natural ability to understand shapes—but needs your help to learn what each one is called. So talk it up! Look around— you’ll find shapes everywhere. Describe the shapes of objects and what makes each one different. And encourage your child to use a finger to trace around the edges of different objects. Children learn best by touching objects of different shapes.

Here are a few examples:

  • Circles are round with no corners. Look for circles printed on billboards and road signs. Encourage your child to use a finger to trace around the edges of plates and cups.
  • Rectangles have four straight sides and four corners. The sides across from each other are the same length. Look for windows, doors, and flags. Trace the edges of envelopes and sheets of paper.
  • Squares are a special type of rectangle—all four straight sides are the same length. Look for windows and signs that appear to be square. Help your child trace the edges of square floor tiles or square picture frames and count each side.
  • Triangles have three straight sides and three angles. Look for them printed on billboards and yield signs. Cut used envelopes or cards from one corner to the opposite corner to make two triangles. Count the sides as your child traces the edges of each one.

There are plenty of shapes at home, but a trip to the grocery store offers some fun ways to find all sorts of shapes!

At the Store

  • Have your child trace the edges of a box of cereal or crackers and count the sides. Say, “The top of the box is a rectangle” (or square if all four sides are the same length).
  • Point out the express sign that says “10 items or fewer.” Ask, “Is this sign a square or a rectangle? How do you know?”
  • When paying for your groceries, point out the different shapes of money. Say, “This dollar bill is a rectangle. What shape is the quarter? Are all my coins the same shape? Are they the same size?”

At the Grocery Store

What’s happening in this store?
What shapes do you see?
What will you count?

Find the Pattern

Patterns are everywhere! You can give your child opportunities to create and play with them. After all, a pattern is as easy as something that repeats more than once—like red, blue, red, blue, red, blue. Thinking about patterns helps children make sense of math and helps them predict what will happen. After just a bit of practice, you’ll be amazed at how often your child will find patterns that you don’t even see!

In the Bedroom

  • When folding laundry with your child, make a pattern with socks. Line them up like this: big, small, big, small, big, small. Then, have fun matching the pairs of socks together.
  • Help your child lay out a pattern with her toys—a book, stuffed animal, block, book, stuffed animal, block, etc. Then count the number of toys all together and repeat the last number as you say, “So we have (total number of) toys on the floor.”

Getting Dressed

  • When you help your child get dressed, help him count the items of clothing he is putting on (one shirt, two socks, etc.). Do any of them have a pattern?

At Playtime

  • Help your child make a pattern with his crayons. Place one pointing up, the next pointing down, etc. As you make the pattern, ask, “What comes next?”
  • String pieces of macaroni into a beautiful patterned necklace. Place a big piece, another big piece, and then a small piece on the string. Repeat with more big, big, small pieces to create a pattern. When the necklace is complete, count the number of “beads” on the necklace.
  • Grow a pattern! Put one object on the table. Below that object, put another object on the table and have your child place one object next to it. Below that row, put two objects in a row, then ask your child to add one more to the row. Below that row, put three objects in a row, then have your child add one more. Ask, “How many do you think will be in the next row? Let’s find out!”

In the Bedroom

Blue square, red square, blue square, red square. The red and blue squares make a pattern on Grandma’s quilt. What other patterns do you see in this bedroom?

Add It UP

Here’s an easy way to think about introducing addition: group like things together, then add them up. Say, “Let's put all your red blocks in one pile and your blue ones in another. Now, let’s count how many blocks there are all together.” Be sure to use easy concepts and small numbers, and whenever possible, use familiar objects as examples rather than numbers. The playground is a perfect place to practice addition with these tips.

At the Playground

From the number of things to play on to the number of children playing, there are many ways to use math words when visiting the playground. Get started with these, then make up your own.

  • Count how many big-kid swings you see, and how many little-kid swings. Then count the two groups of swings all together.
  • If there are children on the swings, say, “There are five swings all together. And there are three children on the swings. How many swings don’t have children on them?”
  • If you see people walking dogs, ask, “Are there more people or dogs?” After your child answers, ask, “How do you know?” “Yes, we can count to find out!”
  • Count your steps as you walk from the bench to the swings. Then count your steps as you walk to something else. Which took more steps? Which distance is farther?

Playing Outside

Use lots of number words as you walk along.

  • Have your child run to, touch, and count a few trees. Ask, “How many trees did you touch?” Have her run, touch, and count a few more. Then hold up your fingers to show each number. Help her add the numbers to find out how many trees she touched.
  • Find a picnic table and take a rest. Ask, “Are there more benches or tables? So there are fewer tables than benches. Fewer is the opposite of more.”
  • Say, “We each brought a water bottle, so we had four. I recycled mine. How many do we have now? How do you know?”
  • On the way home, play a game. Say, “Let’s pretend I have some stars. If I gave you two and I kept three, how many stars did I have before I gave you some?” (Fingers can be useful tools for this game.) Repeat using other objects and numbers.

At the Playground

How many children are on the slide?
How many are on the climbing dome?
How many are riding a bike?
How many children are at the playground all together?

About This Guide

Devoted to Fun with a Purpose®, global family media brand Highlights for Children, Inc. has helped children become their best selves for generations. In addition to Highlights®, the flagship magazine for children ages 6 to 12, the company’s other offerings include High Five®, a magazine for preschoolers; HighFive Bilingüe™, a magazine for preschoolers in English and Spanish; and Highlights Hello™, a magazine for infants and toddlers. The company also has a children’s book division (Boyds Mills Press and Highlights Press), puzzle book clubs, and a variety of digital products.

Highlights early childhood publications encourage quality time between caregivers and young children. By supporting early language development and a love of reading, Highlights products help to fulfill our mission of helping to raise curious, caring, confident, and creative kids.

For more information and tips on reading to little ones, visit www.highlights.com or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute, is leading a public awareness and action campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development and to empower parents with tools to talk, read, and sing with their young children from birth. Today, almost 60 percent of children in the United States start kindergarten unprepared, lagging behind their peers in critical language and reading skills. Through partnerships with pediatricians, hospitals, faith-based leaders, community based organizations, businesses, entertainment industry leaders, and others, Too Small to Fail is meeting parents where they are to help them prepare their children for success in school and beyond. Whether at the pediatrician's office or the playground, Too Small to Fail aims to make small moments big by creating opportunities for meaningful interactions anytime, anywhere.

Learn more at www.toosmall.org. Find more resources for parents and caregivers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Developed by:

Produced in partnership with:

Generous support provided by: