Baby Games that Teach Early Math Skills
Children are born with an innate understanding of basic math concepts, even if they don’t have the language or understanding necessary for application. For instance, studies show that babies have an abstract sense of numbers – meaning they know a quantity of 7 is more than 5, even if they don’t know the words ‘seven’ and ‘five’ or recognize the numeral symbols used to denote these quantities. As they grow and explore the world around them, they develop an understanding of other concepts, like spatial sense, by bumping their heads against furniture as they crawl.
Here’s where the opportunity lies: Parents can use these everyday kids’ games to explain and reinforce math concepts that babies (aged 10 months and up) are already observing, but not inherently understanding — and in this way, lay the groundwork for not just academic ability, but a love of maths.
Baby games that help build math skills
The understanding of oneself in relation to the surrounding space and objects around is known as spatial sense. The baby games below help develop concepts of shape, size, position, direction and movement all come under spatial sense — all crucial to understanding geometry.
Hide Away (10+ months): By this age, children have acquired a fair sense of space, and this activity builds on that knowledge. Hide behind the curtain and then pop out in front of your kid. Bring to her attention that you are first “behind the curtain,” and then you’re “in front of the curtain.” You can even pull your kid in with you, and say “Now you’re behind the curtain, too. And now you’re in front!” It may not be the most interesting 15 minutes of your life, but your kid will love it – and learn from it.
Size It Up (10+ months): When your kid is eating any food that lends itself to slices, make a few unevenly sized pieces and put them in front of your toddler. Let him pick up the one he wants, and point out which one he took. “Oh, you wanted the biggest piece,” or “Looks like you’re not hungry, you ate the smallest piece” or “I’m going to eat one, too, and put away the three that are left.” This simple dinner time talk touches upon the concepts of dimensions, size, and even fractions.
Make A Splash (2+ years): Bring some competition into bath time by seeing who can make a bigger splash using the available bath toys. Throw toys into a bath tub or bucket with your child and observe the splash. Point out when the splash is bigger or smaller – and which size of object caused it. As a grand finale, you might jump in the tub yourself to really drive the point home.
Understanding patterns is crucial to an understanding of math; counting from one to 100 by ones is a recurring pattern of 10 digits, in an alternating pattern of odd and even numbers. These pattern games build a foundational ability to recognize simple patterns, making it easier for kids to take to complex formulae (like multiplication — a pattern that counts every number after a fixed interval) later on.
Clap Happy (10+ months): Musical rhythms are patterns comprising notes named for fractions. And clapping or tapping feet to the beat is one of the most important and fun ways babies familiarize themselves with math. The next time you play a song, clap and sing along and encourage your baby to do the same to help her build an understanding of one-to-one correspondence and patterns.
Food Train (18+ months): Before your kid is ready for Number Muncher (see below) you can do this fun mealtime activity with him. Line up grapes and strawberries, peanuts and almonds, or even differently colored cereal in an alternating pattern in your child’s plate. Pretend it’s a food train (“Choo, choo!”) and note how the pattern changes as your child eats, starting from whatever point in the train. (“You’ve eaten a grape! What goes here to fix the train?”)
Portrait Of A Pattern (3+ years): Grab your kid’s favourite checked or striped outfit, and help her imitate the design on paper. Simply draw out the lines of checks or stripes with a pencil, and explain to your child how the pattern is created by colouring alternate lines or squares – then have her colour in the pattern on the page. Staying within the lines or perfect shading are not important — explaining the idea of the repetition and intervals that create the pattern is.
While babies innately appreciate the number of objects in a group (called subtising), it’s different from having number sense. These baby games help develop the learned ability to perceive the concrete value of numbers, understand the relative difference in said value (larger versus smaller), and eventually use the numbers for counting, addition, subtraction and measurement.
Bake It Up (2+ years): The best part of this activity is the yummy goodies at the end. But first, pick a favorite baked treat and ask your kid to play sous chef. Read out the recipe instructions to him, and together, measure out the ingredients. Be sure to stress the numbers: “We need one cup of sugar. Can you help me put one cup of sugar? Now we need five spoons of cocoa. We can make 12 cupcakes in this tray!” As you and your child perform each measurement, subtle concepts of addition are taking root – that one cup, and another, and another make three; one egg, and another, make two.
Figuring Fingerprints (2+ years): This game helps kids learn visual representations of numbers: how a quantity of three looks different from five, from ten. You’ll only need paper and ink or paint (and some old clothes). Help your child dip her fingers into the paint and make fingerprints on the paper — on one paper, make three finger prints; on another, make five, while saying the numbers out loud (“We made five fingerprints on that paper.”) The main idea is to create a correlation between the visual representation of a number and the number itself.
Number Muncher (2+ years): A breakfast-time activity can teach subtraction while making meals fun (a key part of getting picky toddlers to eat!). Cereals like Fruit Loops and Cheerios are ideal, because they come in large, uniform sizes, but any dry cereal or snack will do. Put no more than five pieces in a bowl and let your toddler eat one at a time, while you call out the count as he eats. “You ate two! Now there’s three left in the bowl. You ate two more — now there’s just one left.”
Sorting and Classifying
Sorting and classifying objects by their common attributes are critical, foundational maths skills. For example, identifying from a mix of different shapes which are triangles and which are squares is the basis of geometry. Grouping objects by attribute (colour, size, etc.) in these math games for kids promotes an early understanding of sets and subsets.
M&M Taste Test (2+ years): Grab a pack of Gems or M&Ms and enlist your kid’s help to segregate the treats by colour. You can then decide which colour tastes best by sampling some from each group. If you’re not a fan of refined sugar, try this with a pack of mixed dry fruits.
Crayon Corral (2+ years): By this age, you probably have more odds and ends of crayons than you know what to do with. Kill two birds with one stone, and organize your great crayon collection while teaching your child sorting skills. Set out different containers on the table and sort the stubs by colour. Explain the rules (“Red goes in this jar; blue goes in that jar”) and get your child to take the lead.
Kids’ Choice (3+ years): Instead of deciding the sorting criteria for your child, let him decide. Sit by the toy drawer or cupboard, get a few large containers and explain to your child that the toys need to be arranged in these — but don’t set any rules. It might take a while for him to understand what he’s meant to do, but help along, be patient, and resist the urge to instruct. Ask questions like “Why did you put the toy car and the Lego block in one box?” if he says something like “That’s the box of blue things,” or “All the small things go here,” he’s on the right track. Allowing your child to form his own rationale for sorting also prompts logical reasoning – another skill!