One, Two, Three . . . . Six: The Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Numbers to Toddlers

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Starting Out


The earlier you can teach numbers to toddlers (and even babies), the better.

Start with Storybooks

Often that can come in the form of storybooks or songs. Here are some great ones with which to start.

One Duck Stuck: This counting book comes with the second advantage of a rhyming tale.

Count the Dinosaurs: There are 17 challenges in this book, all to do with counting. You will have fun with the variety of tasks, all to do with numbers. The ideas in this book can be transferred to many different situations. For example you may wish to count the number of green blocks in your construction set.

 10 Little Rubber Ducks: Although this is not strictly a counting book, you can talk about the different animals on each page and count the ducks. Eric Carle books are famous for their beautiful illustrations.

Focus on Body Parts

Use numbers in your casual conversations with your baby.
You can point out numbers in their immediate environment. “You have 2 eyes, but only 1 mouth.” “ How many feet do you have?” “Let’s count your fingers on your hand!” And then, of course, there is also the rhyme of “The first little piggy went to market. The second little piggy . . . . . Or. One Two Buckle My Shoe.

Amount, not Sequence is Critical

Focus on the amount associated with the number. There is plenty of time to practice the sequence of the numbers. The first introduction of numbers is best when your child can use a physical object (called manipulatives in EduSpeak) to represent the number. Begin the teach numbers to toddlers slowly. Start with no more than investigating the amounts for 1,2, and 3. When your child has these down pat, increase the number amounts gradually.

Repetition Is King

Expect that it may take 10 or even a 100 encounters with numbers from 1 to 5 for your kids to understand the concept of the amount that the number signifies.


It is also advantageous to use the patterns of the numbers that you see on dice. A triangular pattern of objects should be recognized as 3 or a square as 4, 2 as snake eyes, or six as 2 lines of 3.

Magical Thinking in Teaching Numbers to Toddlers

It is a well-documented fact that kids up to 3 years old are very visual interpreters of the world. In a famous experiment conducted by Jean Piaget (father of child development), he found that kids at an early age feel that if the items take up a bigger space, there are more of them. He spread out two rows of coins. Evenly spaced. And asked preschoolers were there the same amount of coins. Of course, the answer was yes. Then he spread out one row to appear as if there were more coins. The preschoolers said the spread out row had more coins. This is one natural stage of cognitive development in teaching numbers.

Your child will need many more encounters with numbers and a maturation in logical thinking to overcome this barrier. I was astounded when I tried this with my bright young son, but I didn’t fret at his lack of understanding. All of us crawled before learning to walk. The response just indicated a stage of development in his thinking. He was still in the Preoperational Stage. So, understand that there will be limitations to your child’s use of number concepts. Realize that experiences and maturation will solve the issue. Keep on working with numbers in real contexts.

“Repetition provides the building blocks for this construction process. It also strengthens the pathways as they are created. The more pathways, and the stronger the pathways they create, the more capacity for learning a child will have,” according to Children’s Learning Adventure.


You can also play a game of “Bring Me.” Bring Me 3 blocks, Bring Me 1 cookie, Bring Me 2 books. Just look around the playroom for items and then add a number for reinforcement.

Later you can use the dice to play, Match Me. Your child rolls the die to get a 3. You try to roll the die to get a 3. At first, counting points will not be necessary as your child will be thrilled with just getting to a win.

Counting Dinosaur Matching Game: You can play this game in a number of different ways. But counting is obvious. Roll the dice to find 5 red dinosaurs. There are instructions you can download to use the materials in many different ways. Any child who is fascinated with dinosaurs will love to use these materials.

Count Your Chickens: This is a great game for practicing counting. But there is an added benefit that it is also a co-operative game. All of the players work together to gather the chicks before the time runs out.

Smart Counting Cookies: Use these realistic cookies to reinforce counting and number recognition. Use them also in a play baking situation.

Play Materials as Discovery Tools

Some play materials are in their structure based on numbers.

LEGO DUPLO: LEGO is one such tool. As your child starts building with Lego, they will discover that a 4 block of Lego can be covered by 2 sets of 2-blocks, 1 four-block, or 4 sets of 1-block. Amazingly, young children are exploring ratios through this material.

Balance Math Game: Balances are also very appropriate for reinforcing number as well. Use the cards as a method for teaching the quantity. Then put the correct materials on the balance. Practice can occur over and over as your child manipulates the pieces of the game.

More Mathematical Concepts

There are more mathematical concepts than number. When your child goes to school, he or she will be introduced to

data management and

as well as numeration. Some of these concepts begin in child’s play as well.

Geometry: There are many toys or tools for learning to assist a child in understanding shape or geometrical concepts.

Shape Sorter Toy: Your child will learn the attributes of each shape instinctively as they try to solve this puzzle.

Shapes Book: This is a very versatile book for a young child. You can read it together or your child can play with the shapes. Since it is water resistant, your child can take it into the tub.

Wooden Pattern Blocks Puzzles: There are 10 different puzzles with 30 shapes. Start with the easiest puzzles and limit the number of shapes you give a very young child to ensure success. As they mature provide more and more of the set to challenge your son or daughter.

Patterning: Elementary patterning can be introduced with storybooks, manipulatives, and artwork.

Beads and Patterning Cards: Start off by learning how to string the beads. Try finding all of the same color beads. Then introduce a pattern such as red round bead, yellow round bead, red round bead, etc. Use the cards for a challenge.

National Geographic: Patterns Explore the patterns in nature with your young child in a book. And then when you go outside continue the search for patterns in nature.

Pattern Blocks and 5 Boards: Start the investigation of patterns with these special blocks that tile together to make so many patterns. And when your child matures, remove the boards for free play with the pattern blocks.

Data management is all about comparison. Your child will do that instinctively. He or she will notice that big brother has more cookies than me. Probability is all about the likelihood of something happening.

Waiting: Although this book wasn’t written to introduce a mathematical concept, you can use it in that manner. You can discusss whether the puppy will likely see snow tomorrow or is it unlikely. With each instance there is a different probability of someone getting what they want. Introduce words such as likely, unlikely, probably, most likely, very unlikely, impossible as you discuss the characters and their situation in the story.

Photo by Happy Films on Unsplash

Paper Bag Probability Game: Gather some blocks or items of different colors. Put a variety of colors in the bag. Ask your child if it is possible to pull a blue one out. Change the ratio of blue blocks in the bag and ask the question over. Don’t forget to put in no blue blocks or all blue blocks to see if your child can respond accurately to the question.

Measurement activities can be a form of play, as well. Who can build the tallest tower? Who can kick the ball the furthest?

the toddler CookBook: Measurement is all part of the process when cooking. Involve your toddler with the real tools to make these delicious recipes. The book is filled with photos so your child can understand what to do.

Daily Schedule: You may not realize it but the recognition of time is a means of measurement that your child needs to understand. Using a routine chart is one way to help your child understand time quantities.

Inch by Inch: Although this book may not suit your country’s system of units for measurement, it does introduce the concept of measuring in a clever manner. Leo Lion is noted for his beautiful artwork and twists in his tales.

Parents just need to recognize that child’s play is a form of essential learning. Providing the time, tools, and stimulus for play is critical to your child’s development.


Get Hung Up on Sequence for counting

When you start with your baby, do not worry about the sequencing of the numbers or your young child memorizing it. The first teaching of numbers to toddlers should be casual. There is plenty of time for refinements in the process.

And when your child does correctly sequence the numbers, check to make sure they understand the quantity aspect. Do not assume that since they know the names of the numbers, they understand how many is 5.


Limit the exposure to Kindergarten math worksheets as young children do not learn best from this more abstract form of a learning environment. They should work with materials that are inherently number related and outside the Kindergarten math worksheets.

The Skinny About Teaching Numbers to Toddlers

Ditch those Kindergarten math worksheets and replace them with inherently mathematical manipulatives.

Assist your child in learning amounts that are associated with the number names but

Allow lots of free playtime with the special tools for learning.

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