Basic Math Skills in Child Care: Shapes and Spatial Relations

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Some child care providers may think of geometry as an advanced math concept learned in high school. But even young children are aware of basic concepts related to shapes and spatial relationships. Child care providers can help young children build math skills by encouraging them to explore and compare shapes and spatial relationships.

Spatial Relationships

Spatial relationships explore the concept of where objects are in relationship to something else. When child care providers use the following words, they are teaching spatial concepts:

  • above, below
  • before, after
  • high, low
  • in front of, in back of, behind
  • inside, outside
  • on top of, under

Learning to understand spatial relationships helps children talk about where things are located. For example, a ball may be behind the chair, or under the table, or in the box. The dog may be on the blanket, outside of the house, or in the doghouse. To help children practice spatial relationships, hide a toy in the room, and give directions to find the toy using some fo the spatial terms above. For example, you might say, “Look behind the chair.”


Understanding shapes is basic to understanding geometry. As children start to identify shapes, they develop a beginning understanding of geometry. Most preschool children begin to learn the names of basic two-dimensional shapes: circle, square, triangle and rectangle. Some preschoolers can even learn to recognize and name more complex shapes (rhombus, trapezoid, hexagon) and three-dimensional shapes (cube, sphere and pyramid). The block area is a great place to reinforce children’s knowledge of shapes. As you build a structure together, encourage the child to add a specific shape. You might say, “The top of this column looks like a great place to add a half-circle. What do you think?”

For More Information

To learn more about teaching math concepts in child care, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Looking for math activities to use with young children? Browse through the database of Hands-on Activities for Child Care.

Photo by Diane Bales / CC BY