Math Toys for Ages 0-3

In the early years, learning is primarily play-based. While there are a myriad of "educational" toys out there that expose children to letters, numbers, shapes, animals, etc., mere "exposure" is not enough. The act of building towers with blocks that happen to have letters on them might be creative fun, but this activity does not automatically make a child aware of letters. 

However, a little suggestion here and there goes a long way. By arming yourself with knowledge about ways children learn can help you have conversations that push your child's thinking while still having fun.

Numbers and Letters Everywhere

Having numbers and letters in various places around the house makes it easy to have spontaneous conversations, whether it is during bath time, at meal time, or just about any time. 

Tips:

  • If your child doesn't know that these symbols represent sounds and quantities, you can also have your child sort them by color or other categories, like "letters with curves." Or pull out a small set of capital/lowercase pairs that look most alike (e.g. Cc, Jj, Kk, Mm, Oo, Pp, Ss, Uu, Vv, Ww, Xx, Yy, Zz) and ask your child to find the capital/lower-case pairs. Start with two pairs of letters and see how that goes.
  • Introduce the connection between these symbols and their meaning. When you have counted three objects together, you can say, "Look, here is the number 3!" 
  • As children begin to learn that numbers represent quantities, they start out with "1", then "2", then they gradually add "3". (Everything else is "a lot"). Rather than always using the entire set of numbers and letters, you can separate out the ones that you need (e.g. 1, 2, and 3) to help your child focus on them.
  • I prefer loose toys that come with containers; otherwise, they end up mixed in with crayons, toy cars, under furniture, and other inconvenient spots all over the house.
 
  • Slightly off-topic: there is a raging debate about whether kids should learn uppercase or lowercase first. Some say uppercase first because kids tend to like them more and are easier to write (but maybe this is because parents tend to expose kids to them first?). Others say lowercase first because when you read text, more words are lowercase than uppercase. At the end of the day, it probably doesn't matter too much, except that it is good to remember to have your child be exposed to both lowercase and uppercase letters. 

Stacking and Nesting Blocks

Children love stacking objects. And of course, knocking them down. When children are stacking blocks, or those classic stacking rings, they are expressing their understanding seriation--the idea that things can be arranged from smallest to largest, tallest to shortest, etc. This is a pre-math concept that allows them to understand the ascending and descending nature of numbers, and to be able to tell which numbers are larger or smaller.

Tips: 

  • It may not occur to your child to try to stack the toy in size order. Stack them yourself in front of her. If she doesn't seem to want to follow your lead, or only enjoys knocking them over, don't worry. Just have fun, and come back to it another day.
  • Young children often get a sense of comfort and security from arranging items in order or sorting them by color, shape, size, etc.

Counting Abacus

An abacus helps children learn to count because it limits where the beads can go. That allows your child to keep track of his counting by sliding the bead over once it has been counted. This helps develop the concept of one-to-one-correspondence--and the ability to count each object only once, not skip over any, and not re-count any objects.

This also serves as early exposure to the logic behind our base-ten number system. Also, you don't end up with beads all over the place.

Tips: 

  • If your child does not naturally play with the abacus by counting the beads, you may need to prompt him to do so.
  • Try to get an abacus with each row of 10 beads grouped by 5s, such as this one. This helps reinforce the concept that 10 is two groups of 5, and can be used to reinforce more complex ideas as your child grows.
  • While the Melissa and Doug Abacus doesn't break up each row of 10 beads into 5's, it does come with suggestions on how to use it with your child to expand his mathematical thinking.
  • This versatile toy also makes a satisfying noise when the beads smash against the side when you shake it.

Also in this series: Math Games for Ages 3-6, Math Games for Ages 7-9