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  • Hands-on Activities to Build Early Math Skills

    May 06, 2013

    Hands-on Activities to Build Early Math Skills
    By Bernadette Grbic,

    Bernadette Grbic

    One of the best ways to teach children math concepts is through hands-on games and activities.  Learning occurs easily when children are being actively engaged and having fun. As a teacher and mother, I have found that while children may struggle with certain math concepts, when they have the opportunity to practice those skills through stress-free, active and engaging activities, that’s when genuine learning takes place.

    I’ve used items like ping-pong or golf balls to create fun, hands on activities to help strengthen children’s number recognition, counting and comparing skills and foster an awareness of data analysis. Below are a few ways these household items can be used to build key skills in young learners.


    Skill: Number Recognition and Counting:
    To try this at home or school, all you need is some ping-pong or golf balls, a muffin tin and salad tongs.

    Provide numbered balls face down in a container and ask children to grab one using the salad tongs (this also sneaks in some fine motor practice).  Once a child has a ball, ask the child to tell you what number is written on it. If the child does not know, say the number out loud - don't fret, it's a learning opportunity.  Once you have discussed the number, ask the child to place it in the appropriate section of the muffin tin by matching the number written on the bottom of the tin. Continue until there are no balls left in your container.  Now start at the beginning and count together, touching each ball as you say its number. Your child has just reviewed counting, number recognition, number order and had some fine motor exercise - all while playing a game!


    Skill: Comparing and Sequencing Numbers: 
    Comparing numbers is a skill that children often need more time to practice. Working with young children to build these skills early on helps build a solid foundation for later math skills, including place value and data analysis.

    An easy way to practice comparing numbers is to grab some ping-pong or golf balls, a medium sized container to hold them in and an empty egg carton. Invite your child to close his or her eyes, reach in to the container and grab two of the balls. Have your child identify the numbers chosen and determine which number is the smallest and which is the largest. Place the balls in the empty egg carton so that you have two rows - one for the smallest numbers and one for the largest numbers.

    Once you have gone through all the balls in the container, you can extend the activity by inviting your child to place the balls in numerical order to further practice counting and number sequencing.

    Skills: Data Analysis & Comparing Numbers:
    We analyze data on a daily basis, whether we are comparing the best value at the store or choosing the best lane on the highway to help us reach our destination in the fastest time. We are always making mathematical comparisons and this is an important math concept to foster in children.

    Even the youngest learners can analyze data and compare numbers in fun, engaging and informal ways. You can graph the favorite colors/food/games/etc. of family members and discuss the results. You can also grab your ping-pong or golf balls and play one final game that will help foster those skills.


    This active game can be played with one or more children.  To play you will also need a large bin or container, some paper and a writing tool.  Have two children each pick a numbered ball from the container. Have them identify the chosen numbers and write them down on a simple chart. Adults will need to assist younger children. Allow children to take turns throwing their balls into the large bin. The largest numbered ball to make it into the container wins the round.  Given that not all balls will make it into the container, children will also get invaluable practice comparing numbers to zero.

    These activities are just a few ways to get children playing and building early math skills. For even more math fun be sure to visit the PBS KIDS Lab and check out the PBS Parents Play & Learn app. It is designed specifically for parents and provides fun games that you can play with your kids to help build math and literacy skills through everyday experiences.