Nail Preschool Math Without a Curriculum

Exploring math is not only one of the most fun things you can do with your preschooler – it is one of the most important. Greg Duncan, an economist and University of California Irvine education professor, found in a 2007 study that early math skills are one of the best predictors of later success in both math and literacy. (Duncan, Greg, et al. School Readiness and Later Achievement. American Psychological Association, 2007. Vol. 4. No. 6. 1428-1446.) That’s right – early math skills were a better indicator of later academic success than anything else. More than social skills, more than behavioral skills, and even more than early reading skills!

Nail Preschool Math Without a Curriculum

In the preschool years, you are introducing the very basics. And you don’t need a curriculum to do it! Incorporating math concepts into play and everyday activities is our favorite way to nail the subject. Here are some ideas to get you started. And this is NOT a must-do list by any means! Your preschooler will be just fine if you don’t cover them all. This is an ideas list – something to spark educational play and exploration.

Counting 1-100

Count everything. Count cars, Cheerios, stuffed animals – anything and everything. The goal is to memorize the order of numbers and to discover their repeating patterns. You don’t have to get to 100, but see how far you can go!

Counting on number lines is also critically important because it provides a sense of a number’s proportional distance from its neighbors. More plainly, it lets children see that 8 is closer to 10 than to 1. Board games, such as Chutes and Ladders, make great number lines. And books are number lines, too! I love reading to my 3-year-old and then taking turns picking page numbers to flip to. As she learns that you flip forward from page 4 to get to page 7 and backward to get to 2, she is actually learning crucial number sense skills.

Skip counting by 10’s and 5’s through 100

If counting by 1’s is going well, you can begin to incorporate skip counting. 10’s and 5’s are the easiest to start with. We have so much fun setting the numbers to song or chanting them, and incorporating body movements like clapping, jumping, and stomping. Recite them while you skip rope or toss a ball to each other. It’s a great way to get wiggles out while you learn!

Number recognition 1-20

We shoot for recognizing and/or writing numbers 1 through 20 by Kindergarten. My girls loved worksheets at the preschool age, which made practicing number recognition and writing easy. But there are many other ways to work it in if your little one isn’t ready to sit and work with pencil and paper. Try . . .

  • puzzles,
  • magnet numbers,
  • foam bath numbers,
  • playing cards,
  • wall posters, or
  • counting books.

Numbers are everywhere, even in nature! Pointing them out wherever you go is often all that you need to do. Ask your child to trace them with her finger.  And sensory activities like writing numbers in sand or shaving cream inside a sealed plastic bag add kinesthetic learning value.

One-to-One Correspondence

One-to-one correspondence is just a fancy term for the concept that the number 1 means one thing, 2 means two things, etc. It requires that a child grasp that numbers are not just words that are recited in a certain order but that they stand for amounts of things. This is why I recommend counting lots of different kinds of objects right from the beginning.  Because if you only count cars, for instance, a child may start to associate the number words with cars rather than amounts of items.

This is easy to accomplish over time by showing your child what different amounts of different things look like. “I’m giving you five animal crackers.” “Look, there are seven ducks.” “Wow, you have twenty rocks there!”

Simple Addition and Subtraction

Any objects you use for counting can also be used to introduce addition and subtraction. Rather than worksheet-type math facts, just talk it out like a word problem. “If we’re having a tea party with two stuffed animals and three more come to join, how many guests are there now?” Help her count the answer.

“You have six animal crackers.” (count them) “If I eat one, how many do you have left?” (count them again) When she is familiar with this game, begin to mix up the vocabulary using familiar addition and subtraction terms:

  • altogether,
  • added to,
  • subtracted from,
  • take away,
  • how many more than?

It gets her thinking about numbers in a concrete sense, their relationships to one another, and how they operate in our world.

Names of Shapes (2D and 3D)

Children love to know the names of things. And if preschoolers can learn the name of a Piatnitzkysaurus and all its fun facts without blinking, it is certainly not above them to learn about trapezoids and rectangular prisms. The other day, we were rolling out Play-Doh with the rolling pin when it rolled right off the table, smashing into my 3-year-old’s toes! She shrugged and remarked, “That’s a cylinder for you. It rolls.” [3D shapes for the win!]

The way I explain the difference between 2D and 3D shapes to my little ones is that two-dimensional shapes are flat, like a circle made of paper, but three-dimensional shapes are ones we can hold and look at from many sides, like the sphere of a ball. Not exactly a perfect definition – but my little children have always gotten the distinction.

Identifying and Creating Simple Repeating Patterns

Pattern blocks are my favorite resource for patterns. *Go figure.* But you can use lots of simple household objects. Try different colored paper clips or toy cars. Just start by making a simple pattern and inviting your child to help you continue it by asking her what comes next. You can gradually increase the complexity of the pattern as she gets better at the game.

This gets her mind in the habit of looking for and recognizing patterns in preparation for doing the same thing with numbers later on. Bonus: play the pattern game by stringing different colored pony beads on pipe cleaners, and *boom*; you’ve added fine motor skills practice as well!

Basic Concepts of Time

No lesson plan here! These are things you can work into daily conversation. The goal is to get her thinking about the concept of time and work in a little vocabulary to boot. Things like the days of the week and months of the year, words like “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow,” the purpose of clocks and calendars, and the fact that things are done on certain days at certain times. “We go to the library on Thursdays.” “Your birthday is in December!” “Did you like visiting the farm yesterday?” “We will have a snack at 2:00.”

Basic Concepts of Measurement

Cooking is a perfect way to introduce why and how we measure things. But there are many more! Show her how grown-ups use measurement in all sorts of ways – baking, sewing, building things. The list goes on.

Measure your child’s height against the wall or the circumference of a bouncy ball, measure the air in her bike tires, or the weight of her piggy bank. We weigh our guinea pigs on our kitchen scale and chart their growth. (Charts – Added math bonus!) Your home is full of ways to measure, and the purpose is just to get her familiar with the process.

Basic Concepts of Comparison

Learning about making comparisons is about vocabulary more than anything else. There are several words that are crucial to grasping math lessons in later grades. The more familiar she is with some of these, the better. And the best way to ensure that is to use them often and in context.

Look for opportunities to organically introduce terms like:

  • more or less,
  • greater or fewer,
  • bigger or smaller,
  • taller/longer or shorter,
  • same amount/size as.

When your little one complains that she has less snack than their sibling, rejoice! That is a math win!

Basic Concepts of Money

When it comes to teaching a preschooler about money, I try – through everyday experiences – to instill the principle that money has value and that we can exchange it for things we need and want. This is a wonderful age to begin the habit of saving a portion of any money your child receives and showing her how it accumulates over time. Learning the names of the coins and how many cents they’re each worth is helpful, too.

Coins make a great counting aid and are useful for working on one-to-one correspondence, comparing amounts, and even skip counting (count nickles by 5’s and dimes by 10’s).

Where to Find More

In our homeschool, preschool math is not all about memorizing math facts or filling a binder with worksheets. (Although there’s some of that.) It’s about getting familiar with concepts and vocabulary. It’s about seeing math in the world and how math helps the world work. You are digging out the foundation in math literacy and number sense upon which you will build for years to come.

To find out more about how we homeschool preschool – including printable learning objectives (ideas) for every subject – check out our Pre-Kindergarten curriculum. My passion is to help and encourage other moms of little ones in their homeschooling journey. It’s a long road ahead – but you don’t have to walk it alone.

Vida Mercer

About the author

Vida is a second-generation homeschooler, writer, editor, and homeschool consultant. She founded Mercer Homeschooling, which works to redefine how people think of education and help families craft a personal homeschooling philosophy and style that meets their unique needs.

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