Math Skills for Preschoolers: How Play-Based Learning Shapes Math Education

ALI Staff | Published  February 20, 2024

Early childhood math doesn’t just lay the groundwork for future academic success in math and the STEM disciplines.

It’s important to early childhood development. A strong math foundation enhances critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills.

These are all big concepts to attach to our preschool-aged students, but the proof is out there. Math skills for preschoolers improve outcomes for kids across the board.


Young student playing with blocks and shapes


Why is it important to build math skills in preschool?

It’s important to build math skills in preschool because it supports the foundational skills kids need to grasp math concepts later on.

Early math exposure helps students think critically and tap into logical reasoning. 

It can also help set the stage for a more positive attitude in math, a subject that is challenging for so many students. 


8 Key Math Concepts for Preschoolers

Math in preschool is very exploratory and hands-on, but there are some key concepts students should hit to support their future learning in the subject.


1. Counting

Preschoolers should practice counting sequentially and understanding the order of numbers up to at least 10.

By the end of the year, they can practice simple countdowns to begin counting backwards.

Practice counting and one-to-one correspondence with simple counting activities around the classroom.

Have them touch and move the objects as they do so to make the concept more concrete. 


2. Emotion Cards

Students should practice writing numbers up to 10 and recognize those numbers visually.

They should be able to link what they know about counting with visual representations of those numbers. 

In your classroom, post visuals of the numbers they’re learning. Connect the dots games are great for practicing number identification.

On a nice day, you can also take your students on a number hunt outside to find numbers you’ve hidden along the way.


3. Measurement

Measurement at the preschool level is about comparing sizes and making estimations using simple tools. Students likely know which candy bar is larger if you show them two examples.

They should also have a basic understanding of the passage of time.

Practice simple measurements with objects they’re familiar with, like big blocks, or have them use their hands to estimate the size of things around the classroom.

Block towers are an easy way to practice measurements like “taller,” “wider,” or “longer.”


4. Spatial Relationships

At the preschool level, children are introduced to spatial relationships and basic geometry concepts with simple shapes like circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles.

From there, they can learn about different shape sizes, their positioning, and words like “above” and “under.”

Practice identification activities that allow students to color or cut 2D versions of their favorite shapes. Have them hold or manipulate 3D versions or identify shapes of concepts in their classroom environment.

Help students describe where shapes are in their physical environment.


5. Patterns

Students should start recognizing and creating simple patterns. These are the basics behind logical thinking and making predictions.

They don’t have to be about numbers, either. Students can work to figure out the next color, shape, or other characteristic in a series.

Hands-on activities are so powerful when it comes to making and identifying patterns.

Students can practice with colored blocks or similarly shaped objects. Use preferred classroom objects to practice “what’s next?” activities where they spot a pattern. 


6. Sorting

Sorting skills often go hand-in-hand with identifying patterns, but the focus here is finding differences.

Students should be able to recognize differences in attributes like weight, shape, color, quantity, and more.

Students already have some practice with this if they’ve been asked to compare two images and circle the differences. They probably already do this with their toys, too.

Have them practice given specific rules to follow, e.g., sorting plush toys away from hard ones when they tidy up.


7. Addition and Subtraction

Once students have a solid grasp of numbers 1-10, they should be able to count numbers in separate groups. This is simple addition.

Simple problem-solving, where you take away an object from a group, is the basis of subtraction.

Visuals and manipulatives are great tools as you teach children the basics of adding and subtracting from a group.

Story problems about characters they know and love can also build engagement.


8. Math Words

Part of building foundational skills in math is learning how to talk about math.

Prepare young students for the journey ahead by using basic (but correct!) terminology for what they’re learning, e.g., “This is a pattern!”

Give students time to talk and think about math. Have them share observations about patterns, shapes, and basic measurements.

Model how they can explain their thinking when solving simple math problems.


Play-Based Learning & Math

Play-based learning is a great way to make math more engaging for preschool students. Colorful characters, hands-on activities, and inquiry-based approaches help our youngest learners connect to the material. 

Games, puzzles, manipulatives, and story-based learning can make abstract math concepts more tangible.

Through play, children can touch concepts like counting, sorting, and pattern recognition. Through stories and imaginative scenarios, children can connect with concepts that require a higher level of critical thinking. It’s a more dynamic way to teach math.

All of this supports a more positive association with math. Learning that is fun is more likely to stick, especially when it comes to more challenging concepts in the STEM subjects.

Preschool students are naturally curious and creative. Tapping into that boosts comprehension and engagement.


Preschool Math Skills: Foundations for the Future

Basic math skills should always be a key component of early childhood education, but the power of early exposure goes beyond becoming proficient at counting and sorting.

Building math skills for preschoolers is good for cognitive development. It’s good for developing brains.

Presenting math concepts in a more fun way makes it more likely for students from all backgrounds with diverse learning styles to stick with math throughout their school careers. T

hat doesn’t just mean better math scores, although that’s certainly a net positive. 

It means students are better-prepared to develop those needed 21st century skills.

It all starts with engaging students in these concepts early on.


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