Learning about numbers is a preschooler’s first step toward becoming a budding young mathematician. And in preschool, math learning is all about counting, number recognition, and one-to-one correspondence. If a child doesn’t ace these seemingly simple skills in a timely manner, don’t fret: even math whizzes need time to blossom. But with age appropriate techniques, helping your child to master these math milestones will be as easy as 1, 2, 3!

In an attempt to foster their child’s academic development, many well meaning parents may be tempted to provide flash cards as an initial learning tool. This is not the best method for teaching young children math skills with understanding, says Grace Davila Coates, Program Director of Family Math (Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley) and co-author of Family Math for Young Children. “Many three-year-olds may be able to identify a 3, but they don’t understand what 3 means. It's important for parents to understand the difference between conceptual learning and skill development," she says. "Instead of flashcards, look for teachable moments, count things that are familiar to the child as she plays or helps you with simple chores. Counting socks, toy cars, or other toys will maintain her attention and have more meaning for her. Play is learning for three and four-year olds. Follow their interests and create environments that encourage creativity and exploration.”

To help make learning the basics of mathematical thinking fun for your preschool child, try a few of these playful activities. Your child will soon be well on his way to building a solid mathematical foundation!

Counting is the ability to recite numbers in order.

How to practice it:

  • Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs that include counting such as: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, There Were Ten in the Bed, This Old Man, Five Little Ducks and The Ants Go Marching One by One. This will give your child an opportunity to practice counting in a fun and playful manner. You can find free song lyrics and listen to melodies at www.kididdles.com.
  • Find counting books at the library. You will want to be sure to check out a few of these classics and find your favorites: Over in the Meadow by Ezra Jack Keats, Count by Denise Fleming, Five Little Monkeys (series) by Eileen Christelow, Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews and Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno.
  • While in the car or waiting in line, have your child count as high as he can go. Have him clap as he says each number name to make the learning kinesthetic. Add a new number each time you practice.

Number Recognition is the ability to visually recognize and name numbers.

How to practice it:

  • Point out and name numbers on street signs, houses and buildings while you are out and about. Find numbers around the house on appliances, telephones, remote controls (remove the batteries and let him play), clocks and thermometers.
  • Give your child a calculator and let him play with the numbers. Ask him to find the number that shows how old he is and show him the number that shows how old you are. Have him type in the numbers 0-10 in order. This learning tool works well when you are waiting in line; keep one in your purse for emergencies!
  • Purchase a package or two of magnetic numbers. Allow your child to match up pairs of the same number and put the numbers in order. Take a cookie sheet and numbers in the car for on-the-go learning.

One-to-One Correspondence is the matching up of a verbal or written number with an object. When a child has mastered one-to-one correspondence, he can touch objects as he counts them.

How to practice it:

  • Have your child count at mealtime by matching up napkins and spoons, counting plates and cups for each family member or doing a count to be sure there are enough chairs when you have company for dinner.
  • Make snack time learning time by writing the numbers 1-12 in the bottom of an egg carton and have your child count the appropriate number of small crackers, cereal or cookies into each section. Keep the egg carton on top of the fridge or pantry for repeated practice.
  • Count everything as you go through the day. Count the steps as you go up and down, count the number of times the phone rings before you answer it, the number of toys you put in a bathtub or how many books you read before bedtime. Put stickers on a piece of paper and have your child touch each one as he counts.

Playful, hands-on games are the most effective and fun activities for the way young children learn. You don’t have to purchase expensive educational toys, just use what is around you to spark curiosity about numbers in your child. You can count on success when your child learns basic math skills through play!

Find out more with our Essential Guide to Preschool Math!