Effective Practice Guides

Emergent Mathematical Thinking: Do


Try the following practices with infants and toddlers. Find out how home visitors can put these practices to work with families.

Infants and Toddlers1

  • Play games, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, and read books that use numbers and counting.
    • Gently bounce infants on your lap or knee and invite toddlers to clap or beat on a drum to a steady beat. Steady beats relate to number concepts such as counting and one-to-one correspondence (e.g., one bounce per beat, one clap per beat).
  • Provide a variety of age-appropriate materials that support children's explorations with one-to-one correspondence (e.g., containers with lids, markers with tops). Invite older toddlers to help set the table for meals and snacks. Explain that each place at the table gets one plate, cup, napkin, and utensil.
  • Play simple body games such as "This Little Piggy," "Open, Shut Them," and "Pat-a-Cake." Games like these help infants and toddlers develop a physical sense of where they are in space.
  • Provide mobiles or other simple and safe moving objects for very young children. This helps them learn about objects and how objects move in space.
  • Provide materials and equipment such as simple puzzles, different-sized boxes, tunnels, and age-appropriate climbing structures. These materials and equipment allow young children to physically explore spatial relationships such as in, out, over, under, inside, and outside.
  • Point out how objects are the same and different. Draw children's attention to characteristics such as color, shape, texture, size, and function (how the object is used).
  • Organize the environment to help young children know where toys and materials belong.
    • For example, put labels with pictures and words on shelves and containers, or put children's photos and names on their cubbies. This helps young children practice sorting and categorizing.
  • Provide collections of small toys and other safe objects, such as shells and plastic bottle tops, that older toddlers can sort and organize in different ways. Pay attention to any safety concerns with toys and objects if toddlers are in mixed-age groups with younger children.
  • Use math talk as you describe what children see and do. For example:
    • You have two eyes, and so does your bear. Let's count: one, two.
    • I have more crackers than you do. See, I have three and you have two. I'm going to eat one of mine. Now I have the same amount as you!
    • Look, Jason went under the climber and Aliyah is on top!
    • Some of the crackers we have for snack today are square, and some are round.
    • You put the big lid on the big pot and the small lid on the small pot.
    • Let's put the dolls in the basket and the balls in the box.

Home Visitors

Home visitors can support parents in identifying, adapting, and trying the practices listed above during home visits and group socializations. Here are more ideas.

  • Brainstorm with parents the many ways they already use math and math talk with their child and in their own lives. Encourage parents to use the language(s) they know best when engaging in math talk with their child.
  • Work with parents to find safe toys and other objects their child can use for math play; kitchens and dressers are often great places to find these things.
  • Talk with parents about opportunities during daily home routines to use math talk with their child. For example, diapering, meal and bath times, walks around the neighborhood, and shopping trips are ideal times to count, use words that describe and draw children’s attention to spatial concepts, and describe how objects are the same and different.


1Early Head Start National Resource Center (EHS NRC), News You Can Use: Supporting Early Math Learning for Infants and Toddlers (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, 2012, https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/school-readiness/article/news-you-can-use-supporting-early-math-learning-infants-toddlers.

Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: June 5, 2018