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Teach young children math through play―it’s easy with LittleCounters®

Math can’t wait!

LittleCounters shows how to integrate counting principles and other math concepts through purposeful play during everyday activities

Young children are naturally curious in their first 5 years, and research shows that the best time to introduce mathematics to young children is at this time while their brain is rapidly developing. Mathematics in early childhood helps children develop critical thinking and reasoning skills early on and it’s the key to the foundation for success in their formal schooling years.

Yet the thought of teaching math can be intimidating, especially for adults who have math phobias themselves. So through their LittleCounters® early numeracy program, researchers Donna Kotsopoulos, Ph.D., and Joanne Lee, Ph.D., (Wilfrid Laurier University) set out to show parents, caregivers, and educators of young children that mathematical learning can be taught through play and that it can be easy when the learning involves toys, games, songs, and books that are already a part of the child’s everyday learning experience.

Developed in 2009, LittleCounters workshops focus on introducing the importance of early mathematics education at the height of a child’s readiness to learn. The workshops help parents, caregivers, and educators of children ages 1–4 find ways to integrate counting principles and other mathematical concepts through purposeful play—moments in common daily activities (either at home or at school) when meaningful and effective learning opportunities are created using things that are available in the child’s learning space.

The workshops show parents and educators how to look at math through a different lens and gather ideas for blending math instruction into routines and activities that children are already engaged in to foster math learning in meaningful ways.

Let’s Talk About Math


Learn how to use purposeful play with young children to promote mathematical thinking and get them ready for formal math instruction.

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There are four key concepts of the LittleCounters program:

1. Use mathematical talk

Initiating conversations about math and numbers can happen anywhere. Engaging with a child in mathematical talk is simple using number or quantity words to talk about everyday things—and it’s easier than one might think. Have a conversation with a child that’s based on quantity or size: Which is bigger, the strawberry or the blackberry? I cut the grapefruit in half, so now how many pieces are there? Food items, bath toys, steps, and body parts are just a few of the many things children can have fun counting, ordering, and comparing.

2. Engage in purposeful play to support and advance learning

By focusing on play, math is integrated in a natural way rather than being taught in isolation. And it’s done so through familiar items that children are already interested in. Purposeful play advances children’s learning as they become engaged in problem solving, reasoning, and recall. During purposeful play, opportunities for mathematical thinking and understanding emerge naturally: What can you do to make the block tower taller? How many cars did you use to make that train? Can you make it longer? Additionally, infusing mathematics in play helps children develop essential social skills, such as turn-taking.

3. Support the development of counting beyond simple rote counting

Mathematics is everywhere and there are so many opportunities to spot teachable counting moments beyond repetition. Conversation starters that support the development of more complex counting can include: Do we have the same number of baby carrots on our plate? Are there more blueberries on your plate or in the bowl?

4. Provide mathematically rich environments before formal schooling

To help children begin to develop their understanding of math, teachers and parents should observe what the children are most interested in, and explore ways to incorporate math into that particular interest. Ask open-ended questions to help children better understand the math connection. How does the ladybug compare to the bee? What shapes do you see in the puzzle? What happens if I break these blocks apart?

LittleCounters in action: A parent's perspective

 “[The workshops] definitely helped put a fun spin on math.”

Krista, one mom who was curious about what she should be teaching her young son, participated in LittleCounters workshops through her public library. The LittleCounters workshops “put a fun spin on math” and nicely highlighted the importance of teaching her son, Chase, the meaning of numbers and quantities. She quickly realized how many easy opportunities there are to teach mathematics through play, and her perception that teaching math to her son would be challenging changed.

After participating in the workshops, Krista noticed Chase paid more attention to counting—everything from his fingers, his snacks, even the stairs. And Krista changed how she talked about math with Chase. Rather than counting to 10, she started to help Chase understand numbers as a quantity, not just learning what number comes next. “The workshops helped open my eyes to fun and interesting ways to integrate early math learning into our daily activities.”

Now 4 years old, Chase is more aware of numbers and other math concepts. He continues to count, discussing what’s more and what’s less, and he’s more aware of and likes to talk about patterns and shapes. Krista found the workshops beneficial to her and her son as they “encouraged us to all incorporate math terms and learning into our daily activities.”

LittleCounters in action: A teacher's perspective

“[LittleCounters] helps positively change teachers’ perception of math.”

One early learning center—The Wellington Early Learning Centre (WELC), in Guelph, Ontario—received training on the LittleCounters workshops as part of a follow-up to their participation in the authors’ research study (the LittleCounters workshops are a result of this study). Heather Currie, a former teacher at WELC who was in attendance, says the workshops “help positively change teachers’ perception of math.” The workshops helped put early math education on the forefront for the teachers in the center.

When discussing with other teachers key takeaways from the workshop, Heather and her colleagues agreed that they “didn’t realize children had such strong mathematical thinking skills at such a young age, and how simply rote counting in routines are not enough.” This common misperception about young children’s mathematical inability quickly dissipated. The workshop helped open the teachers’ eyes to all the math possibilities and “it definitely became more prevalent in play materials offered in the environment, natural transitions, and group meetings.”

“Participating in [the LittleCounters] study and workshop was very influential on my practice in several ways. Prior to participating, I was actively incorporating math on a basic level. It was part of our daily meeting time, and infused in the classroom environment. However, I was missing some very important components to having a fully successful math program. First, literacy development was most definitely on my radar and on a much higher scale than math. Meeting times with children were centered on literacy and math seemed to spill in. Now, my meeting times are focused on math and literacy naturally comes in . . . most importantly, as an educator I feel more passionate [and confident] about teaching early mathematics. I realize the importance of my role in terms of ensuring that math is part of play, the environment, and programmed times.”

Now an early educator at University of Waterloo, Heather applies the math principles she learned from the LittleCounters workshop daily in her practice—in guiding program planning, reflecting as an educator, scaffolding learning, and in the assessment and documentation of children.

Math learning is everywhere

Young children learn best with hands-on experiences, so it’s ideal to make math real by teaching it in the context of children’s everyday learning. The home and classroom are brimming with opportunities to integrate math into children’s routines and activities. Here are a few ideas to get any adult started:

Mealtime: Ask the child, What shape is the plate? or Do we have enough spoons? We need four.

Clean up time: Ask children to pick up a set number of toys. While picking them up, have the child name the shape of the object.

During laundry: Ask the child to sort piles and identify which pile is more or less; ask the child to match socks.

Some of educator Heather Currie’s favorite ways to make math have meaning for her kids are:

  • have children count to make sure everyone is present at line-up
  • have children cut pieces of string for an art activity and ensure they are all equal
  • involve children in checking the temperature to see if the weather allows them to go outside and play
  • graph peers’ interests and likes to make fair decisions among the group

These simple ideas should help all parents and educators realize that exciting ways to engage children’s mathematical thinking are plentiful.


It’s hard to come by early mathematics programs, despite the significant benefits math has for young children’s learning. While the LittleCounters program is still in its early years, it promises to be a major influencer on the way children comprehend math concepts and make their own math connections.

With so much interest in the workshops, Kotsopoulos and Lee have authored a new book Let’s Talk About Math, which guides caregivers to infuse mathematical thinking in children’s natural learning environments. Through both the LittleCounters workshops and Let’s Talk About Math, Kotsopoulos and Lee aim to teach parents and educators the countless opportunities for teaching math and empower them to feel confident and comfortable in instilling math talk in children’s everyday routines.

(Originally published: May 2014)