Expert Articles

Toddlers and Mathematics – How to add this up!

Author: Mary Ann HOOD
Senior Lecturer, Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education

We all know how important mathematics is and research tells us that it is essential to all learning, for example language and social and emotional development.  Along with the importance of mathematics we also hear about it being difficult to master…some people even develop a fear of mathematics.  This article is going to share some simple and effective ways for you to help your child build the important early foundations for maths – and both of you will enjoy it.  You can count on that promise!

Every day we use mathematics concepts without even realising it.  Concepts like numbers and counting might come to mind.  But mathematics also consists of measurement, patterns, shapes and spatial sense.  When young children are playing and as part of regular routines, they explore these concepts in a natural way that results in deep understanding.  Let’s talk about how adults can provide support to children through exploring mathematics in daily experiences and have fun while doing it. In this article we will consider five basic concepts to begin with. 

1. Number and Operations

This means understanding the concept of number, order, ways of representing numbers, quantity and counting.

While interacting with your child and their teddy bear, you could say something like: “You have two eyes and so does your bear.  Let’s count “1, 2.”  

While having dinner, you could say: “I have more chicken wings than you.  I have two and you have one.  I’m going to eat one and then we’ll have the same amount.”

When you are out shopping, point out numbers in the environment – the numbers in the elevator, on the bus that you use, the prices in shops.  Can you think of more ideas?

2. Measurement

This means understanding size, weight, volume, time and quantity.  Some ideas for you to think about during the daily interaction follow. 

While getting ready for school in the morning with your child, talk about how many steps it takes to get to the bus, mtr, taxi or car.  And when you get to school, count the steps to the door of the classroom. In terms of time, toddlers are too young to understand time on a clock.  Rather teach time through doing.  For example, compare the time it takes to get to school (a long time) compared to the time it takes to walk to the nearby 7/11.  Reading books about time is also a good way to lay the foundation. Understanding weight can be developed by comparing the fruits you have bought for the snack time.  Which is heavier?  The banana or the orange?  Which is longer the apple or the banana?  Which is bigger the grape or the mandarin?

3. Shapes and spatial relationships

Recognising and naming shapes and understanding the physical relationship between objects is the start of geometry. Always remember to use your child as the starting point.

At an appropriate time, you could say: “You’re sitting next to your brother” or “Some of the crackers are square and some are round” or ask “Should we sit on the top deck of the bus or the bottom?”  Asking questions is always a good strategy – but not too many!  Doing puzzles is also a great way to develop spatial understanding as children turn each piece to find the correct place.  Start with simple ones and try not to interfere! 

4. Patterns, relationships and change

Recognising and creating repeat patterns like colours, lines, sounds, etc. and understanding that things can change over time and that we can use words to describe this are the beginning of learning algebra!  

“You have stripes on your shirt today – red, blue, white, red, blue, white”

“Look at the ice block melting.  It’s getting smaller!”  

“Let’s clap to the beat of this song.”  “We always wash our hands before we eat.”

5. Collecting and organising information

This refers to collecting, sorting, classifying and analysing information so that we can make sense of what is going on in the world around us. 

“It’s time to tidy up the toys.  Let’s put the blocks in box and the animals in the basket.”

“Let’s put the fruit in the bowl and the vegetables in the fridge.” 

“Let’s sort the Lego into colours.  Can you find all the red blocks?”

With practice you will relate mathematics to real life in enjoyable and fun ways.  Remember to have patience with your child.  They are still learning and acquiring the necessary understanding to fully grasp the concepts.  Hands-on learning is the best way to do this.  Start with easier ideas and build up to the more challenging ones.

A final tip – Story time with well-chosen storybooks that will support mathematics learning, is another fun way to develop mathematics concepts while also building a strong connection together. The best learning takes place within a warm and nurturing relationship. Here are some recommended storybooks.  Don’t worry if you do not read the whole book.  Always follow your child’s lead and interest.  Remember, this should be enjoyable! Here are some book recommendations but of course, there are so many more!  These are also very good authors so find some more that they have written.  The Hong Kong public libraries have a great selection to choose from.


Eric Carle’s 123 written by Eric Carle

Measurement and size 

Who eats first written by Ae-Hae Yoon 

Who sank the Boat by Pamela Allen


Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert

Spatial Relationships 

Where’s Spot by Eric Hill


Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? By Bill Martin Jr.

Elmer by David McKee

1,000 FAQ
Toddlers and Mathematics