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Early Math Skills for Toddlers: Learning about Shapes Using Everyday Items

Apr 28, 2022    |   Infant & Toddler LearningMath & Numeracy

Discovering and learning to identify different shapes is lots of fun for toddlers. Working with shapes is also a great way to introduce young children to colors, matching, and foundational math skills. In this article, we share a variety of simple activities that use shapes and everyday items to engage children in tasks that introduce new concepts and offer opportunities to practice fine motor skills.

Why is Learning About Shapes Important?

Developing an understanding of each shape helps to prepare children for learning more complex mathematical concepts, particularly geometry. As children learn about shapes, they also learn about space, and how objects relate to each other. Child development expert Jennie Ito, Ph.D. explains, “Learning shapes not only helps children identify and organize visual information, it helps them learn skills in other curriculum areas including reading, math, and science. For example, an early step in understanding numbers and letters is to recognize their shape.” 

Other skills that children develop as they learn about shapes include spatial visualization, categorization, symmetry, and recognizing similarities and differences. These skills support children’s later learning and set them up for success as they transition into kindergarten. 

Giant Shape Match Activity

If you have blocks of different shapes and large sheets of paper, you already have everything you need to set up a homemade matching puzzle. After tracing the blocks onto the paper, you can invite the children to match each block to a shape by placing the block right over the traced shape. The puzzle can be large like the one shown in the photo so that children can work together; or it can be made from smaller sheets of recycled cardboard or construction paper so that children can work individually. You might also have other items that can be used to create shapes, such as tangrams, magnatiles, or even bottlecaps and canned food. 

Click here to find the full instructions for making and enjoying this activity. For more fun shape matching ideas, you might check out these links: 

Shape Hunt Sensory Bin

Do you have shape puzzles in your classroom that aren’t getting much attention?  You can make the puzzles new and interesting by hiding the puzzle pieces in a bowl of rice and then encouraging children to hunt for each puzzle piece before placing it into the puzzle. If you don’t have rice handy, you can substitute dried beans, pom-poms, or other items that you have available. This activity is a fun, sensory experience that lets toddlers practice fine motor skills as they use their fingers to search for the puzzle pieces, all while learning about the shapes. 

Click here to learn more about this activity.

Playdough and Kinetic Sand Shape Imprints

For this activity, all you will need is playdough (you can find a few simple playdough recipes here), kinetic sand, and playdough shape cutters. Place the playdough and kinetic sand next to each other on two different trays with the shape cutters in the middle. Encourage children to make shape imprints into each of the different materials. You can help them compare and contrast the textures and feelings of the kinetic sand and the playdough.

This activity can easily be adapted to make use of what you have on hand. If you don’t have both playdough and kinetic sand,  just set up one tray and encourage children to form shapes with the cutters. You can also show them how to make imprints with blocks or other items. Click here to learn more about setting up this activity.

Shape Stamping with Sponges

This activity uses paint, paper towel rolls, sponges (you can find these at the Dollar Store if you don’t have them already), scissors, and hot glue. Since hot glue is not a safe item for toddlers, you’ll need to make the stamps ahead of time by cutting the sponges into a few different shapes and then gluing them to the paper towel roll.

You can add to the children’s learning experience by asking them about the shapes on each of the stamps and the colors they are using to create their artwork! Click here for detailed instructions for setting up this activity.

Further Exploration

If you are interested in additional ways to help the children in your care learn about shapes, you might enjoy this article from the Good2Know Network archives, Geometric Shape Books for Infants and Toddlers.

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