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Teaching Math to Infants and Toddlers/Preschoolers

I am not a fan of math. The subject caused me untold misery throughout my life, brought down my grade point average in high school and college, and overall just sucked. I used to joke with my former husband that I married him solely to balance out my seemingly math-deficient gene pool for my future children.

Before my biological children were born I read over 400 books on infertility, pregnancy, fetal development, labor & delivery, and infant/toddler/preschooler/child development/psychology. And why shouldn’t I have? I studied for 4 years to prepare for and obtain a teaching license. Why shouldn’t I take as much time and concern to prepare for parenthood? Parenting my children is my most important career. If I performed poorly on a test in school, I could make it up somehow – extra credit, do better on another assignment, take the class over if need be; but there are no “do-overs” in Mommy world. If I perform poorly as a mother, my child reaps the consequences. I looked at my future role as a mother as THE most important thing I would EVER do in my life.

During this research, I realized that though I suffered through math and had failed to obtain the foundation I needed to see success in that subject, there was no reason why my children had to perpetuate my failure. But how to remedy that? Well, short of mingling my creative/artistic genes with a mathematically-gifted gene pool – which is never a sure bet, yes, it increased the odds, but there was no guarantee my offspring would inherit that mathematical gift. So…I went to what I knew: teaching.

Babies come into this world with a mind like a dry sponge. From the moment they open their eyes against the harsh light of the environment outside the womb, their mind begins sucking up information. Their mind begins storing data like a computer. Everything goes in: texture, sounds, color, tastes, and images – all of it. Studies have shown that even BEFORE birth, babies respond to familiar voices, touch, and in some cases, the food the biological mother consumes.

My first step in educating my children began in utero. I gathered all of the textbooks my former husband and I had in the house. Then I scoured the shelves of used bookstores for other subjects. Then, for at least an hour a day, I read out loud from the textbooks: Physics, Calculus, History, American Literature, Computer Science, Journalism, English Grammar, Spanish, Russian Literature, British Literature, Biology, Oceanography, Political Science, Art Appreciation, Psychology – and any magazines we happened to subscribe to (Archeology, Smithsonian, Time, Guitar Digest, Guns & Ammo, lol) Of course, there’s no way to tell if those early readings helped or not, but I needed to lie down anyway, I would have been reading a book anyway – so – what could it hurt?

BUT…I realize everyone isn’t as dedicated to textbook reading, or as comfortable with their own voice in a quiet room as I might be. So, you have this baby/toddler/preschooler here NOW…How do you teach your child math skills?

START AT BIRTH: Numbers 1-5

Why numbers 1-5?

Most babies/people (No jokes please. Do not take for granted that you or your child is fortunate enough to be born with all digits. I cannot count how many children we reviewed during our adoptions who, through fetal issues or grievous injuries, were not so fortunate) have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. It’s the natural number to begin with because most babies have concrete examples right there on their body.

Baby does not know what you’re doing, but that’s okay. REPETITION is the key. COUNT EVERYTHING. When you’re diapering: count their toes. If you’re clever enough, sing the numbers to a traditional children’s song: Mary Had a Little Lamb, Row your Boat, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, etc. As you count, show the baby his/her finger/toes, saying the numbers with each touch. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. When you’re having bottle/nursing time – count babies fingers. Count your fingers. When you’re playing, count/hold up five stuffed animals, toys, diapers – whatever – just make counting part of your together time. Over and over and over again.


At 5-6 months, buy board books that have numbers (and alphabet, but that’s a different post J ) or use/make flashcards. I used a lot of flashcards. Designate 15-20 minutes at the SAME TIME every day for “school time”. Baby doesn’t know it’s school time. Baby thinks it’s mommy or daddy time. THAT is the key. Look at the book – or make flashcards with colorful photos you cut from magazines (See post for making flashcards: http://angelinehawkes.livejournal.com/150266.html).  Count. Count. Count. Sing. Sing. Sing.

When baby begins eating solid food, count bites. Count bowls. Count spoons. Count teddy grahams, snacks, whatever he or she is eating. Line the food up. Count it. Count it as the food goes into their mouth. Count it as you hold it out for them. Count it as you take it out of the box. Find a way to count EVERYTHING. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


At 1 year, it’s time to start making baby interactive. I know you’re saying, “What? But my baby isn’t talking!” Some babies aren’t. Your child does not need to be verbal (talking) to count with you. Babies comprehend language before their bodies are mature enough to vocalize. Both of my biological children could count to 5 at age 1 year. Some babies can hold up fingers and will instead of talking, or will with talking. Incorporate counting fingers into the game, use baby’s hand and your own to demonstrate.

Food is the easiest and most productive manipulative (thing to count) in my opinion. Why? Because with food there is something to count, and a reward in the end. ALWAYS GIVE THE CHILD THE COUNTING FOOD AT THE END OF YOUR COUNTING SESSION REGARDLESS OF THEIR PERFORMANCE. There should be NO punitive measures against a child for failing to comprehend or demonstrate. The key to success is REPETITION, FUN, TOGETHERNESS, and REWARD FOR BABY.

Get down on baby’s level. At a little table, on a blanket, etc. You should have FIVE of something baby likes to eat. We used goldfish crackers the most. Only five. Be prepared for some tantrumming until baby catches onto your SAME TIME EVERY DAY program. For the first few times, baby will just want to immediately EAT the tools. Baby’s internal clock will set itself to “fun time with mommy or daddy”. This is very important. In today’s world, so many families are running all over tarnation. Children thrive on consistency. Obviously, you won’t be on the minute every day. Not an issue. Strive for the same time. For us, it was around 2 pm, after they woke up from their nap after lunch meal/bottle.

Line up the 5 crackers (You use whatever you want. I’m using crackers for my example). I printed out a colorful sheet of paper that had the numbers 1-5 in circles. This visual sheet allowed baby to visualize the number in addition to learning to count the number. Whenever you can combine skills/senses, do it as it increases learning opportunities. I would put the 5 crackers, 1 on each numbered circle.

Now, count them, pointing to the crackers while saying the numbers. Take baby’s hand, and help her/him point to the crackers while counting. Use bowls, cups, etc to drop the crackers, one by one into, while counting. Hold the bowl, give baby one cracker, have baby drop it into the bowl (replace it if baby eats it). Count while baby drops it into the bowl.  I would do this for 10-15 minutes, depending on baby’s tolerance that day.  When you’re done counting, be VERY EXCITED and PRAISE baby for their GOOD COUNTING. Then let baby eat the crackers – while counting them for baby. Clap your hands, use your “oh my god this is the greatest thing EVER in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD” voice, and make a big deal out of baby counting EVERY TIME. Babies want to please. If they see that they have done something very important and good, plus they get to eat something yummy, they will want to do it again.

About once a week, try to make baby take the lead. Put the crackers on the paper, etc, and tell baby: “YOU count the crackers for mommy/daddy! Can you do it?” This is where the repetition pays off. Baby has watched you, and watched you, and watched you count the crackers. At first, baby is mimicking you. They’re like little monkeys. They might not yet get WHY they are doing what they are doing, but they begin to do it because they copy what they’ve watched you do.  Continue to count everything and anything everywhere you are and go. I even sang counting songs for lullabies.

YOU vocalize for baby or with baby if your baby is talking. Count while baby “counts”. My oldest son was very verbal and would say the numbers (not always in the right order). My oldest daughter was not very verbal. She would point to each cracker and grunt, while I counted. That’s okay. She THOUGHT she was saying the number. For all I know, she WAS saying it in her mind. The key is to develop a sense of success in your child’s mind. If you’re successful at something, and there is a promise of a reward, you want to do that something over and over again because it feels good. That success builds your confidence. The same thing works for baby.

When mommy or daddy comes home from work, in the presence of baby, you should relate this HUGE accomplishment. Baby counted to five today!! Maybe baby didn’t. Maybe baby bashed each cracker with his fist and then licked the crumbs off the Little Tikes table like some kind of creepy licking demon-possessed horror movie baby….but BABY needs to think he’s counting to five and that he’s the smartest, most clever, most awesome baby in the whole wide world.

By 2 years, baby can perform simple addition. No, my kids were not writing math problems on papers. They demonstrated with M&Ms, teddy grahams, gold fish crackers, etc.  Place 1 cracker on the table. Count 1. Have toddler count it. Put another cracker on the table. Say: 1 + 1 = 2. Push the crackers together.  I stayed with 1+1=2 until toddler could do it on his/her own. Then we moved to 1+2=3, and so forth. Again, repetition. At 2 years old, I also introduced numbers 6-10, so toddler was now learning to count 1-10. We sang “1 little, 2 little, 3 little” (replace the now not so pc “Indian” with whatever it is you’re counting) everythings lol. Bath time, reading time, bed time, clean up time – whatever. Sing the song. Count. Count. Count. Make it into a game. Hold up 3 toys and ask baby to count them. Do this randomly throughout the day. Always test baby. If they’re comfortably counting to 4, nudge them just a bit, and sometimes hold up 5 toys. Toys are great for learning. Look around. Many of your child's toys already have numbers on them. Play computers, cash registers. My youngest son's favorite toy was his pretend telephone. We counted numbers on his phone all the time.


Okay, you’re saying. Well, ain’t that special. So you got yourself a couple of smart kids. Super. This can’t work for every kid. Well, here’s where my little educational foray gets a little more exciting. I didn’t stop at 2 biological children. I also have 2 adopted children. Gene pools entirely unrelated to mine by race, ethnicity, country, language, you name it. Not only was there no chance of crossed genes, but both children came to me speaking a language in no way similar to mine (English): Korean and Chinese.

My youngest son came to me at age 17 months old. My youngest daughter was 6 ½. Talk about having to change horses in mid-stream!

Immediately I started in with my youngest son. I started doing the same things I did with my 5-6 month-old babies, only he was 17 months old. Because he was older, he caught on faster, so we moved through the stages at a faster pace. Now, he’ll be 5 years old in 2 weeks and is working addition and subtraction problems involving numbers 1-15.

I obtained custody of my youngest daughter on July 18, 2011. I immediately started in on her even though she had NO idea what I was saying. I began counting everything. Over and over and over she heard me counting 1-10. I skipped the 1-5 stage and went straight to 1-10 due to her age, and memory skills. I sang numbers and letters to her all day in the hotel. I sang colors and shapes, and pointed to colors and shapes and said the English words. Mostly I sang numbers and letters – over and over and over again. She just thought I was singing. I knew I was uploading data into her brain.

My youngest daughter came home from China on August 1, 2011. She had to begin Kindergarten on August 20, 2011. I had 20 days to get her to a functional level. I employed the assistance of my two older children, in addition to my husband. EVERYTHING became an educational game. In 20 days, she learned how to SAY her name (we combined an English name with her Chinese name), WRITE her name, the alphabet (and some of the phonetic sounds), numbers 1-10, and the words/meanings of what I indentified as basic survival words: yes, no, hello/goodbye, potty, food, and water.  She is now in first grade and is performing on, and in some instances, a little above, grade level.

This didn’t come easy. Her Kindergarten and ESL teacher worked with her at school. We worked with her at home for 1-2 hours every day after school. We worked with her for 3 hours, 4 days a week throughout the summer between her Kindergarten and 1st grade year. Her 1st grade and ESL teacher are working with her at school. And, until December, we worked with her an hour at home every day after school and on weekends. We have eased off now, and are letting her learn at a slower pace, confident that those crash course skills we all worked so hard to teach her are doing the job.

We used a LOT of flashcards with her. Flashcards for numbers, alphabet, colors, shapes, everyday items (furniture, clothes, food, etc), senses, body parts, etc. For her, much of it was language development. She knew her colors and shapes – she just needed to assign the English words to them.

But, again, I used the same techniques, repetition and rewards that I used with my 5-6 month old babies, to introduce counting with her. With a slight twist, coming from a neglected past of malnutrition, it was hard to convince her that she was ALLOWED to EAT the counting treats. I had to sit and count each one she ate. If I simply pushed them across the table after praising our session, she would leave them there. So, we counted each one she ate too. She counted socks, toys, crayons, even the number of times the basketball went into the hoop. Counting opportunities are everywhere.

Fingers, toes, food, toys – whatever you have to count, use these objects to introduce and then reinforce the presence of numbers, and later the concept of addition/subtraction with your babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Repetition and reward.

Give your children a happy, confident foundation in math and math concepts to take with them to school – but don’t let it end with school. YOU are an important factor in their education. The same techniques of repetition and song that you use when they’re babies to teach counting can be taken with them as far as college and beyond. Spelling words, science terms, whatever – all are easily remembered, memorized and utilized when learned to a tune, and sang over and over again.

Learning is a lifelong journey. Lay a confident foundation for your children as early as you possibly can.

Finally, don't forget the internet is an excellent source of free, printable worksheets and exercises geared toward early learning. When my children were babies, I had to make my own material. The internet has opened a whole world of opportunity to parents and care providers in the form of free educational idea sites and printable material. Some websites, but not limited to these, where good, quality material can be downloaded: Enchanted Learning, TLS Books, Kids Learning Station, Jump Start, Education.com, Kidzone, etc. Use a search engine to search for free, printable toddler or preschool worksheets. Searching for more specific concepts will also bring up exercises, such as toddler counting, shapes, etc.

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