Are you thinking about how to use math lessons for your preschoolers? Are typical lessons not what you’re looking for? 

Understandably, math is considered a common core subject, and its instruction should begin early to ensure success in the future. But what DOES math instruction look like in a preschool classroom? 

Is the teacher at the front of the class giving a lecture? Are students sitting quietly with a calculator in hand scribbling arithmetic problems? Not in my classroom! I want to make sure students are engaged and that math instruction is appropriate for this age group.  

Essential math skills build on each other and allow students to make mathematical connections later in life. This can translate into other skills, such as coding, which will prepare students for the technological world they will face. 

So maybe we should throw out the books because math is all fun and games! Well, wait a minute…Math and play are not mutually exclusive, especially with young learners. Children become engaged in playful activities where learning is happening by design and by the natural flow of play. 

In early childhood years, it is important that children have rich and diverse experiences with math. This exposure goes beyond the traditional direct instruction and moves more towards child-centered instruction. Before we can start looking at what child-centered math instruction looks like in a pre-K classroom, let’s explore the mathematical concepts that young children are capable of investigating. 

Numbers and operations

Geometry and Spatial Awareness


Pattern Recognition

1) Numbers and Operations is knowing the names of numbers and the sequence they go in. This also includes students using the meaning of numbers to count the number of objects, compare numbers, and understand basic adding and subtracting. This last point might seem like it can only be achieved through direct instruction, but designing lessons to feature play as the primary mode of delivery can benefit students. Allowing instruction to happen using board games still teaches students to count by moving spaces. Another activity to evoke learning while keeping the engagement is using bears, blocks, buttons, or whatever is on hand and cups with a specified number on them. This allows for students to recognize numbers, count objects, and match things.

For arithmetic, you can use cards and manipulatives. Students can draw a card, count out objects, draw another card. This is where they learn to add and subtract; they can count out objects for the new card, then they can put the two sets together by adding the objects or taking them away. Students would count the new sum. This activity is a deliberate game designed to engage students, but also cover difficult concepts.

2) Geometry and Spatial Awareness is identifying shapes, identifying similar characteristics of shapes, and creating shapes with given materials. Spatial awareness could involve drawing the location of an object, giving directions to find something, building a structure with blocks. A block center is a perfect way to captivate students. Students have the opportunity to discover new shapes and how they fit together. Doll or playhouses allow students to discuss where furniture goes in a house. A teacher can ask, “why did you put the couch there, can a door go in front of the window, or how do we get to the kitchen?” In free play, the teacher can observe what students are doing, but it is the questioning and probing that a teacher uses to uncover ideas that are key. Another invitation to explore would be mystery bags with different shapes in them. There could be 2D or 3D shapes that students can feel and then draw or describe. Hide and seek with an object is another way to get students thinking about their spatial awareness 

3) Measurement can include the use of various tools to further enrich a child’s understanding of math. Estimating and Comparing are essential skills and are important to give students perspective about how they perceive the world. Using strips of paper cut to different lengths allows them to explore the concept of long and short. As an invitation to explore, measurement tools can be placed around the classroom. Students will use tools and the classroom in creative ways, even instinctively. Students will use measuring tapes and rulers to build towers, create roads, and other things their imaginations will dream up. As the teacher, asking questions in a block center such as, “Who’s tower is taller & how do you know,” is a great way to get students involved in measuring and comparing. “How many blocks do you think you will need for this?” Again, the questioning choice during uninstructed play is vital to uncover student ideas and further guide their curiosity.

4) Pattern Recognition is important for students not only in STEM, but also translates into language acquisition later in life. There are different levels to pattern recognition–Level 1: Copy or Extend a Pattern, Level 2: Transform a Pattern, Level 3: Practice Pattern Unit Recognition, and Level 4: Engage in High-Level Pattern Practice. Some examples to achieve this skill without direct instruction would be having a bead station where students can make necklaces. This outdoor activity could be used for Levels 1, 2, and 3. Students can copy a pattern, they can extend the sequences, and with different materials, they can transform patterns. 

As you may have noticed, even though the examples for activities are play-based, they are still focused on eliciting natural curiosity. Children will find creative ways to use manipulatives, talk about objects, and instinctively use math skills. As the person who facilitates that learning, it is vital that teachers use accountable talk moves. There are “moves” that can press for accurate knowledge or build on prior knowledge. There are “moves” to challenge a student’s thinking. By asking the right questions during play, or direct instruction for that matter, a teacher can find out what students know; what they don’t know; what they are thinking; how they are thinking; and what students want to know. 

Bring on the extra play time and let the math learning…I mean fun, begin!