The One Math Skill Your Preschooler Needs (They Can Learn It At Home!)

My toddler and I are putting away the groceries. When we get to the apples, we count them out as we put them away.  

One, two, three, four, five, we chant together loudly.   

Before we close the refrigerator door, I prompt her: Okay, so how many apples do we have all together?

It’s five! I hear my son shouting from the living room.  Any time he hears “number talk” he HAS to join in on the conversation. 

It’s five! Repeats my toddler proudly, in her cute little baby talk voice (why can’t they talk that way forever?!)

Number talk

“Number talk” is everyday language at our house.  We talk about numbers, just as we would talk about any other interest.  There is no special “math time” where we sit around and do math problems.  Math is simply integrated into our everyday lives. 

When we think of the math skills that preschoolers need, we are talking about certain abilities that they should pick up in everyday language and encounters, before they enter kindergarten.  These abilities don’t need to be taught by a preschool teacher, they can easily be experienced at home.   Math literacy isn’t promoted as often as verbal literacy in preschoolers, and yet it is of parallel importance! 

Number talk is one of the best things you can do to encourage positive early math experiences and to promote later math success.  We love Math at our house, but even if numbers don’t appeal to you on even the smallest of levels, you can still participate in number talk with your child. 

Learning number sense is a complex concept for  young minds, but it is also one that they can learn as early as infancy (The National Association of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine).   Think about the simple less-than-a-minute conversation I had with my toddler about groceries.  In that short time she was exposed to three mathematical concepts:

  1. Counting and using number names
  2. One-to-one correspondence
  3. Cardinality

It’s drilled into our heads that counting is important in preschool (and I do agree it is), but cardinality is vital to their math success!  A child’s ability to engage in cardinal reasoning has been shown to impact their broader math achievement in kindergarten (NPR). 

Counting bears

What is cardinal reasoning?

The ability to engage in cardinal reasoning is typically learned around the age of four (though some children will be earlier or later depending on their number talk exposure).  There are so many everyday experiences you can do at home to expose your children to cardinality.  The simplest and most forward way is to count items (anything!).  Literally you can count almost anything.  You’d be surprised how often you use numbers in your daily life, and how simple it would be to voice your thoughts aloud with your children.  

Counting ants in a book

When you are reading a book together, pause and count.  In the above picture, we are counting the ants as they march to work (there were 11!) Count the number of cars you pass on the way to the store.  Count puzzle pieces.  Count stuffed animals.  Count socks, and then have your child match then up and put them away (hah!)

When it is snack time, count the Cheetos as you put them on your child’s plate.  Encourage them to count with you.  Point to each Cheeto and put extra emphasis on the final one.  Look, you have 15 Cheetos! 

For extra fun, sing the numbers and have the last number be the loudest or highest pitched note.  FIFTEEN!!!!!!!  Don’t be afraid to use larger numbers with toddlers and preschoolers, either (its okay to move beyond simple 1, 2, 3 counting).

My toddler has yet to understand cardinal reasoning, so when we count out objects together, we make sure to put extra emphasis on the last item and to inquire what the total is.  After continued practice, your toddler and/or preschooler will catch on!  

Remember there is no “too early” when it comes to math.  I am not advocating for drilling math facts, but for everyday, natural math experiences acquired through play and everyday life encounters.  Give your preschooler the chance to love numbers, even if your own numbers experiences were less than stellar. 

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