Brookes Logo

Early Childhood | May 2011

Boosting young children's math skills is easy once you focus your mathematical lens

Quick quiz: (Roll over to see answers)
Smiling little blonde girl playing zoo with different sized plastic animals

Your classroom is brimming with opportunities to integrate the NCTM focal points into children's day


Math matters! It's easy to see why organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) are calling for more emphasis on math fundamentals in pre-K and kindergarten. As an early childhood educator, how can you effectively integrate NCTM's focal points into your curriculum? You're up against the realities: little extra time, a limited budget for new materials. But by honing your "mathematical lens" and seeing everyday materials and classroom routines in a new way, you can easily address the NCTM focal points during your average school day, with little to no extra expense.

Read on for practical, low-cost options that address all 3 NCTM focal points for pre-K and kindergarten math instruction: number and operations, geometry, and measurement. Use these suggestions as a starting place for your own creative ideas as you work to address each focal point in your lesson plans:

Engage in math talk

Make games with low-cost teaching supplies

Teach math through storybooks

Engage in math talk

Many teachers report that they don't like math and aren't comfortable with the idea of teaching it. But teaching math doesn't have to be intimidating. Put on your mathematical lens, and you'll see that your school day is brimming with chances to introduce math talk during play time, snack time, circle time, and clean-up time. Keep your ears open for any discussions that involve numbers, shapes, or measurement, and be ready to expand on them.

Here are just a few math talk examples that address each NCTM focal point, adapted from Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood by Sally Moomaw and Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills through Spatial Learning by Mary Jo Pollman:

  • Number and operations: At lunch time, one of your students asks for more grapes. Instead of asking her to eat the two grapes she already has, ask her how many she has on her plate. After she responds "two," say "Okay, I'll give you two more and you can tell me how many 2 plus 2 is."

  • Geometry: Work a discussion of shapes into circle time by pulling flat and three-dimensional shapes out of a bag or apron and asking students to play Guess What the Shape Is. You can also ask children to locate three triangles inside of a larger triangle or build different objects with two triangles. (For more ideas on teaching geometry during the school day, check out these simple suggestions from Blocks and Beyond.)

  • Measurement: Keeping in mind that young children love to make comparisons between objects, expand on this by asking students to line up farm animals according to size during clean-up time. You can also have kids collect leaves while playing outdoors and suggest that they arrange the leaves by size, or have children count and contrast the number of blocks in two towers during free play.

Make games with low-cost teaching supplies

Games are irresistible to kids, and with just a little effort and a few dollars, you can make simple and effective games that address NCTM focal points. You don't have to buy expensive math games—focus your mathematical lens and you'll see new possibilities in low-cost materials like stickers, plastic animals, buttons or other readily available classroom resources. Here are three great examples, from Blocks and Beyond and Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood. These effective, budget-conscious games will capture your students' imagination and help address NCTM focal points in a fun, creative way:

  • Number and operations: Try The Bathtub Game, which was created to tie in with the popular children's book King Bidgood's in the Bathtub but can be easily modified to work on its own. You'll need a few toy bathtubs or soap dishes, roughly 20 toy people, and a 1–3 dot die. Students take turns rolling the die and placing the corresponding number of toy figures in the tub. As more figures are added, encourage children to do simple addition to keep track of the number of people in the tubs. If it seems too easy, consider switching to a 1–6 dot die and using smaller figures so more can fit in each tub.

  • Geometry: Help the Teddy Bear Find Its Buttons is a good way to work on the components of NCTM's geometry focal point: identifying shapes and describing spatial relationships. Gather a collection of large and small square buttons and large and small round buttons and ask questions like "Can you help the bear find one large square button and one small round button?" This is an effective activity because it helps teach children how to sort objects by more than one property.

  • Measurement: Carpeting the House is a fun game that teaches kids about the concept of area. All you need are standard-unit wooden blocks (which you may already have) and square tiles, 2¾ inches on each side, cut from colored fun foam. Have children build houses with their blocks and use the foam tiles to carpet their "floors." While many early childhood measurement activities focus on the concept of length, this activity goes a step further and introduces children to the relationship between length and width.

Want more math games? This free download gives you complete instructions for 3 other creative math games from Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood: the Doghouse Game (number and operations), The Magnificent Shape Quilt (geometry), and Container Brainer (measurement).

Teach math through storybooks

Storybooks are ideal teaching tools: Children are naturally swept up in fantastical plots and characters, and their innate curiosity leads them to imagine new possibilities and ask questions about what they're hearing. Using the exciting characters and situations in storybooks, it's easy to get your students intellectually and emotionally involved in learning key mathematical concepts. In the context of a story, math will seem much more interesting and relevant, and the richly detailed illustrations provide a natural visual demonstration of math concepts. Best of all, you don't need to buy any extra supplies; viewed through a mathematical lens, any storybook in your classroom can be a great math teaching tool.

In Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve: Building Early Math Skills Through Storybooks, Jane Wilburne, Jane Keat, and Mary Napoli give detailed guidance and lesson plans on using a wide variety of storybooks to meet NCTM focal points. This practical example uses plot points from Sergio Makes a Splash, a book about a penguin learning to swim, to illustrate how a single storybook can help address all 3 focal points:

  • Number and Operations: Ask the children to count how many penguins in the book are Sergio's friends, figure out how many floaties Sergio will have to bring for them, and explore why some pages show five penguins and other pages only show three or four. Make a chart to help the children count the penguins and determine how many floaties they need.

  • Geometry: Using cut-out pictures of penguins and blocks of ice, have students practice spatial visualization by suggesting which shapes to cut out of the ice and how to pile them up to build an igloo for when the penguins get cold and tired.

  • Measurement: Encourage students to measure and compare the height of Sergio and all of his friends before they go swimming, and ask them what tools they could use to do this. Use a tub of water and toy or cut-out penguins to show how deep the water is and where on their bodies the penguins would want the water to come up to.

Download these two complete pre-K and kindergarten lesson plans from Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princess Problem Solve, and see how to use storybooks to sharpen your students' math skills.


Addressing NCTM focal points may seem daunting at first, but they can be worked into your curriculum in a fresh, fun way with minimal extra effort. Just focus a mathematical lens on your normal routines, and you'll recognize countless opportunities to incorporate key math concepts throughout the day.

This article features downloads from the following resources:

Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills through Spatial Learning

Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood

Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve: Building Early Math Skills Through Storybooks

home | catalog