Practicing math with your toddler can feel really intimidating. A lot of parents had their own negative experiences with math education, and it can make thinking about teaching math to toddlers feel intimidating. It can also be hard to know where to start.
I often see parents begin their child’s Montessori math education by counting things. How many carrots are on your plate? How many stairs are we climbing? How many balloons are on this page? Counting is great, and I’m not asking you to stop - but there is so much you can do to support your toddler's mathematical development even before they can count.
Three Ways to Practice Montessori Math With Your Toddler
What really comes before learning how to count to 10? What can we do with children who do not yet recognize the numbers 1, 2, and 3?
The answer is: a lot!
Developing the ‘mathematical mind’ can start early, around two or three, and the good news is you are probably already doing most of it. Your next step is to develop an awareness of the benefits of some of those activities so you can do them with intention.
One of the easiest activities to begin developing logical thinking is matching. Very young children can match objects or images together. As their abilities develop, you can increase the difficulty by having them play a matching game, where they turn over each image one at a time. This builds their memory in a fun, easy way.
In the beginning, you will notice a lot of ‘cheating’ where they turn over multiple cards to look for the match, and that’s okay! You might consider reducing the number of matches to keep it from feeling overwhelming. With time and practice, they will develop the patience and skills to play by only turning one at a time.
Once classic matching games feel easy, you can put one set of cards on one table, and the second set on the other side of the room. Trying to find matches while also navigating between the two locations is hard work, and it prepares them for the difficulty of holding numbers in their head while doing later math work.
Sorting and Math
Sorting is a staple Montessori lesson, but did you know it supports the child’s ability to do math? Later on, they will need to be able to sort numbers into ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc., and that mental skill starts with being able to place objects into groups.
We tend to think of sorting as separating objects by color: all the red beads here, blue beads in this section, yellow beads over there. That is a great start, but sorting goes a lot further than that.
You can sort:
- stuffed animals by where they walk, swim, or fly
- toy cars based on whether the wheel is small, medium, or large
- buttons by where they have one, two, or four holes
- blocks by shape, or arrange them from tallest to shortest
Whatever your child is interested in, there is probably a way that you can capture that interest in a sorting activity.
The ability to recognize and follow a pattern is a very big math skill.
Think about the multiplication facts for the number 5: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25…It’s just a pattern, where the number increases by 5 each time.
We need to be able to look at a set of numbers and identify the thing that ties them together. What creates the pattern? We can help our children develop that skill before they are able to recognize their numbers.
Patterning does require some preparation from the adult. You have to provide the first bit on the pattern so they have something to copy. In the beginning, offer them patterns that have only two pieces: ABAB
For example: apple, banana, apple, banana...
Ask your child what would come next. You can do this with anything in the home as long as you own multiple of them. Food, legos, beads, stuffed animals, silverware, stickers, rocks and sticks, anything that might capture your child's attention.
As your child becomes comfortable with patterns, make the patterns harder.
For example, an ABC pattern: apple, banana, cherry, apple, banana, cherry…
Or an ABAC pattern: apple, banana, apple, cherry…
If you used books, the options could be (A) book standing up, (B) book laying down, (C) book backwards. Make a pattern with pinecones and flowers you found on a nature walk. The possibilities are truly endless.
Wrapping it up
Developing the mathematical mind starts early, well before learning to count or recognizing numbers. Now you know how to help build those skills. You can create patterns, sort objects, and match items. Helping your child build their number sense is an important part of Montessori math, but it does not have to be hard!
Author bio: Rebekah Carpenter is an AMS (American Montessori Society) Montessori teacher and runs Happy Holler Circle, a parent education center for families looking to implement the Montessori philosophy at home. She provides virtual parenting consultations for families with children 0-6 on topics ranging from specific needs like toilet learning or managing big emotions to more generalized 'parenting therapy', and she teaches parent-child classes where she lives in Knoxville, TN.