Encouraging Early Math Skills At Home

Encouraging Early Math Skills At Home

Did you know early math skills are one of the best predictors of children’s math and reading skills in late elementary school? Children with strong early math skills are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college based on Mattera and Morris’s 2017 study. Yet, many people, including ourselves and the families we serve, often have negative mindsets when it comes to math.  We frequently hear statements such as, “math is hard”, “young children must sit down to learn math”, “I had trouble with math when I was a kid, so I won’t be much help to my child.”

As early educators we can challenge these ideas by highlighting for families how early math is not just counting, but part of our everyday lives. From tile patterns on the floor to counting cereal, math is already part of a child’s day-to-day experience. As their first teachers, families are an important partner in setting strong early math foundations for children.

Throughout this tip we will explore how to support families in strengthening their child’s early math skills through developmentally appropriate and family-friendly activities. We will pay special attention to how we can help families feel more comfortable engaging in early math at home through accessible, everyday activities.

Strengthening Families Protective Factor: Supporting Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development Via Early Math Skills

We can help strengthen families’ understanding of what early math milestones to expect and what activities are developmentally appropriate to help children learn new sills.  Check out the chart below for common milestones from Understood.org and age-related activities:

Babies (Birth to 12 Months)

Developmentally Appropriate Early Math Skills

  • Begin to predict the sequence of events
  • Start to understand basic cause and effect
  • Begin to classify things in simple ways
  • Start to understand relative size
  • Begin to understand words that describe quantities

Skills in Action

  • Recognize that running water means bath time
  • Shaking a rattle makes noise
  • Some toys make noise and some don’t
  • Baby is small, parents are big
  • More, bigger, enough; “More juice please!”

Family-Friendly Activities

Toddlers (ages 1-2 years)

Developmentally Appropriate Early Math Skills

  • Understand that numbers mean “how many”
  • Begin reciting numbers, but may skip some of them
  • Understand words that compare or measure things
  • Match basic shapes
  • Explore measurement by filling and emptying containers
  • Start seeing patterns in daily routines and things

Skills in Action

  • Using fingers to show how many years old they are
  • Counting, “1, 2, 4, 5,…”
  • Under, behind, faster; “Swing faster, Abuela!”
  • Triangle to triangle, circle to circle
  • Filling up a bucket, emptying and repeating
  • Noticing repeating floor tiles

Family-Friendly Activities

Preschoolers (ages 3-4 years)

Developmentally Appropriate Early Math Skills

  • Recognize shapes in the real world
  • Start sorting things by color, shape, size, or purpose
  • Compare and contrast using classifications like height, size, or gender
  • Count up to at least 20 and accurately point to and count items in a group
  • Understand that numerals stand for number names
  • Use spatial awareness to put puzzles together
  • Start predicting cause and effect

Skills in Action

  • Cookies are circles, tiles are square, pizza slices are triangles
  • Sorting candies by color, sorting toys into indoor or outdoor types
  • “Mom is a girl, Dad is a boy”, “Trees are taller than flowers”
  • Counting cars; Grouping cereal into groups of 5
  • 5 stands for five; 10 is ten
  • Working on large, 10-piece puzzles
  • Predict what will happen if a toy is dropped in a tub full of water

Family-Friendly Activities

Kindergartners (age 5 years)

Developmentally Appropriate Early Math Skills

  • Add by counting the fingers on one hand and then continuing on second hand
  • Identify the larger of two numbers and recognize numbers up to 20
  • Copy or draw symmetrical shapes
  • Start using very basic maps to find a “hidden treasure”
  • Begin to understand basic time concepts, like morning or days of the week
  • Follow multi-step directions that use words like first and next
  • Understand the meaning of words like unlikely or possible

Skills in Action

  • Counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on one hand — and starting with 6 on the other
  • “Which is bigger, 8 or 5?”, “8!”; “What number is that?” “17!”
  • Seeing a triangle, then drawing out a symmetrical triangle
  • Following a path on a map to “X marks the spot!”
  • “Today is Tuesday!”; “It’s 8:00AM, Good morning! Wake up, Mom!”
  • “First, let’s make the bed together. Next, we can brush our teeth!”
  • “It’s sunny outside. It’s unlikely to rain today!”

Family-Friendly Activities

Note: Each child is different and develops on their own timeline within the ranges above.  If you have any concerns about the development of a child in your care, please contact your local resource center or visit First 5 LA’s site for more information.

Talking Points for Families: Approaching Early Math with a Growth Mindset

One of the most powerful ways to support early learning is cultivating a growth mindset in our little ones. A “growth mindset” is the belief that intelligence and ability can be developed with practice. On the other hand, someone with a “fixed mindset” will see their qualities as fixed traits that cannot change. Helping families learn about and utilize a growth mindset when supporting their little ones’ early math skills is key to encouraging families to engage in math activities at home.  Below are helpful talking points for families:

  • Recognize discomfort, emphasize strengths: Pay attention to verbal and body language families share when talking about math. If families express or seem uncomfortable with math, their children will likely feel the same.  It is important that we use positive, strengths-based talk and a growth mindset when talking with families about their ability to support their little ones with early math skills.
    • ex. “We’re always learning, just like our kids. When you show your child that you’re open to learning math skills, they will follow your lead.”
    • “When we learn and make mistakes, we show our children that it’s ok to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and try again.”
  • Connect to new family activitiesMake math a family thing, whether it involves reading storybooks involving math, using more “math” talk at home, such as shapes, counting, and quantity, or talking about math more often in conversations as a family. Everyday is an opportunity to learn!
  • Appreciate the Journey: A growth mindset emphasizes the value of the learning process; that is where we learn from our mistakes, make the effort to practice, and show perseverance against challenges. Instead of focusing on “getting it right”, families can encourage their kids by using the growth mindset phrases like the ones in the callout box to the side.


Talking to Kids: Growth Mindset

  • “Wow! You worked really hard on this!”
  • “Why don’t we try a different way?”
  • “I saw how much fun you had doing that activity.”
  • “I see you are having a tough time with this. That’s okay, you gave it a first try. Let’s try another way!”
  • “I know that was difficult for you, but your hard work paid off!”

Talking to Kids: Fixed Mindset

  • “Look at how smart you are!”
  • “Maybe you’re just not good at this.”
  • “You’re a real natural at this!”
  • “No, that’s wrong. Try harder. Maybe if you paid more attention, you’ll get this.”
  • “That was way too hard. I hope we never have to do that again!”,
  • Everything in Due Time: Many families may feel pressure to have their children achieve certain math skills by the time they reach a certain age – say, counting by 2’s by 5 years old, for example, which may or may not be realistic. Encourage families to praise children for the learning process instead of an end goal. Kids will learn the necessary skills “in due time” and when their brains are ready.  This will lead to less frustration and more enjoyment of learning for both children and family members.
  • Math is a part of Play: As was highlighted in previous section of this tip, kids learn and explore basic math ideas best when playing. As early educators, we can highlight for families how math shows up in a numerous ways during child’s play and give families examples of math games to use to support early math learning – like those on the Mixing In Math website.
  • Encouraging kids to love math! When adults enjoy the learning process and demonstrate a positive attitude towards math activities, children are likely to adopt the same attitudes. Encourage family members to use positive messaging around math concepts, such as, “My favorite shape is a circle. What shape do you like?” “Can you help me count apples at the grocery store? I love doing counting activities with you.” Check out this inspirational video!

Let’s Bring This Home: How Can We Support Families?

As we take next steps to support families in developing early math habits at home, consider these ideas as inspiration:

Side-by-Side: Guiding Families Through Early Math

  • Exit Activity: Post a simple math-related prompt for families to do with their child as they exit your early learning program. A few examples:
    • “Look for things shaped like triangle and circles on your way home!”
    • “Count how many blue cars you see on your drive!”
    • “Use shoes to measure how tall some of your furniture is at home!”
  • Host a Family Math Night: Whether in person or virtually, consider hosting an event with different types of interactive, early math activities. These events can be a great space to further discuss creative ideas and increase family confidence in supporting early math skills!
    • Make sure this event includes interactive, play-based activities for families that can be done in their daily lives.
    • Use a theme: Grocery Store Math, Storybook Math, Mealtime Math, 5 minute Math, and others are great ways to show that math occurs everywhere and in many ways.
  • Address Concerns: Be available to address families concerns about early math. These may occur during informal conversations at pick up or drop off or during more formal conferences. Always be ready to share resources to help build families confidence and knowledge about early math. Consider using this resource from Zero To Three to guide conversations with families about how kids develop early math skills and about their role as their child’s first teacher.


On Their Own: Providing Families with Resources

  • Next Steps: After finishing a math activity, send kids home with a follow up activity to further explore the topic with their families (make sure the activity is translated and uses readily available materials).
  • Provide Weekly Activities: Share weekly math activity hand-outs that exercise and strengthen math skills in fun, hands-on ways – like hopscotch, water balloon math, building block activities, etc.
  • Share Videos or Pictures: Whether it’s something created in your program or an activity found online like Sesame Street in Communities’ Pattern Play, share videos and pictures with family-friendly math activities! Share these via email, text, and/or on your program’s website.
  • Use Books to Support Early Math: Use storybooks like Sesame Street in Communities’ Elmo’s Math Adventure to highlight fun times with math! Parents can use stories with positive messaging like “Math is a fun!” alongside Elmo and Abby. Check out these 40 Children’s Books That Foster a Love of Math, for more ideas!


*For support in designing a virtual event with families, check out our QSLA Connect course!

As always, consider what options work best for your program, families and staff capacity.

Supporting families by breaking the ice around math can make a big difference in how comfortable families feel engaging in early math activities at home. Consider the information and resources shared here as a jumping off point to further strengthen families’ knowledge of parenting and child development. Families are counting on us for guidance to ensure their children have the tools and skills they need to be successful in school and in life.


Check out these inspiring and ready-to-use resources for early education programs and family homes!


Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront. She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.