Young Children's Developing Math Skills

Child care providers often ask when children develop basic math skills. Children begin to learn some specific ways of thinking about mathematics in their first 6 years. Below is a brief listing of when some of these basic skills typically develop. Remember that every child is different and will learn each of these skills at a slightly different time.

Baby chewing on colorful beads

0 to 2 Year Olds

  • use all of their senses to identify familiar objects and people
  • begin to predict and anticipate sequences of events
  • notice cause-and-effect relationships
  • start to classify objects in a simple but thoughtful manner – for example, toys that roll, toys that don’t
  • use words to classify objects according to basic characteristics, such as type (toy animals, blocks)
  • begin to use relationship words and comparative language, such as bigger and under

2 to 3 Year Olds

  • begin to understand the concept and use of numbers – for example, realize that when they count their crackers, each is given one number
  • count three or four objects, but then count the same object twice or skip objects
  • understand many directional and relationship words, such as “straight” and “behind”
  • can fit large puzzle pieces into place, demonstrating an understanding of the relationships between geometric shapes
  • notice patterns in the things they see and hear
  • make cause-and-effect predictions

3 to 4 Year Olds

  • recognize and look for geometric shapes in the environment
  • enjoy sorting and classifying objects, usually only one characteristic at a time – color, shape, or size
  • begin to classify things by their uses
  • notice and compare similarities and differences
  • use words to describe size and quantity relationships – “My bowl is the biggest!”

Building blocks stacked

4 to 5 Year Olds

  • enjoy playing games involving numbers
  • struggle with classifications that are not obvious
  • count objects or people up to 10 or 20 with less skip-counting or double counting
  • understand that symbols represent complex patterns
  • solve multiple-piece puzzles by recognizing and matching geometric shapes
  • use concepts such as height, size, and length to compare objects

5 to 6 Year Olds

  • start to add small numbers in their heads, but still are more comfortable adding real objects they can actually touch and move
  • classify objects according to more than one characteristics – sorting the blue round blocks and the red square ones
  • use their longer attention spans to focus on activities that interest them
  • use positional words to explain spatial relationships – for example, “on top of the table,” “behind the chair”

Some of these ways of thinking may not even seem like math, and their names may seem strange. But all of these developing skills provide children with a strong foundation for understanding math. With help and support from child care providers and parents, children gradually learn these skills that will help prepare them for formal math later on.

For More Information

To learn more about the development of basic math skills among young children in child care, and for some hands-on activity ideas, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: