19 - 21 Months

The earlier, the better: math is already developing in your toddler’s brain

Toddler sitting on a man's lap looking at a plate of raspberries and blueberries

Neuroscientist Gillian Starkey studies how math skills develop in children’s brains—we asked her what she most wanted to share with parents of toddlers. 

The takeaway: Starkey believes parents are generally unaware of how ready young toddlers are to learn about numbers. Parents hear plenty about how important reading is for young children, but early introductions to math matter just as much.

Research shows that incorporating math concepts early can make an important difference in a child’s ability to succeed in math later on.  

Introducing your toddler to math can happen in the course of your regular day; it doesn’t have to require anything special. There are lots of easy ways to pay attention to the math that’s all around us. The important thing is to use math as consciously as you use language so it becomes a regular, familiar part of your child’s day.

Here are some suggestions for integrating math into your toddler’s life:

Counting every day

Counting helps familiarize your toddler with the concept that there are number words that go along with quantities. “I’m giving you five little crackers—one, two, three, four, five.” Count how many clementines you are buying at the store, or count how many buttons are on your shirt. Count everything! 

Early math experts advocate using number words in sequence as much as possible: instead of saying “here are eight clementines going into the bag,” you would say, “here are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight clementines.” 

Your toddler’s learning is also more meaningful when you can physically involve them in the process. Invite your child to help by letting them put each clementine into the bag on their own, or by putting their hands or fingers on each object as you count. 

Your toddler might start to do their own “counting” around two years old by reciting number words (mostly 😉) in order and pointing to objects in an attempt to mimic what you do when you count. 

They are not yet making the connection between an actual quantity and the corresponding number word they are saying. Later, around age three or four, they will better understand what’s known as “one-to-one correspondence”—one ball goes with the number one, and two balls can be counted “one, two.”

Play comparison games—quantity, size, and shape

Woman holding two spoons in front of a baby

Compare quantities with your toddler using words like morelessequal, and same. Introducing your child to the concepts of none and zero is also helpful: “You have more water than I do. My water is almost gone. Look what happens when I drink it: now my cup is empty. I don’t have any water now.” 

You can also compare the size of identical objects, like a big spoon and a little spoon, or the Big and Little Nesting Cups, which are the same color and ideal for comparison. 

Shapes are fun to notice, too. “This ball is round, like that orange. This beanbag is a circle and this one is a triangle.”

Notice patterns

Father hugging a toddler while looking at a plate full of berries

Patterns are fundamentally numerical. If your child is wearing a striped shirt, you can point out the pattern in the stripes—blue, red, blue, red. You can also create patterns together by lining up different kinds of snacks—blueberry, raspberry, blueberry, raspberry.


Music is full of math: the beat, the rhythm, even the syllables within the lyrics. Dancing to a beat, or even just moving their body, can help your toddler find order and notice patterns. Early math concepts are all about patterns and sequences. Try doing simple clapping patterns (first one clap to help them understand the copy-the-clap game, then two in a row to make a beat, etc) and see if your toddler can try to match them.

Remember that math at this age is all about patterns, sequences, routines, observations, and comparisons—these are the precursors to what’s known as number sense. Precise counting—and understanding what numbers actually represent—comes later.


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Posted in: 19 - 21 Months, Problem Solving, Math, Matching, Real World Play, Playtime and Activities, Child Development

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