STEAM Series: Mastering M

THe m in steam

The M in STEAM stands for Math. Math in STEAM helps little ones learn about patterns, numbers, shapes, sorting rules, and measurements in hands-on and fun ways. Learning about math concepts starts at an early age. You will likely use the sign and word for more early on with your infants. They will learn that this gets them more of a favorite activity or food. For example, after a child eats his last piece of banana, you might say, “Would you like more banana?,” while using the sign for more. The child might start associating the sign with the word and use it to get more banana. Older infants and toddlers will likely learn the concept of two early on also. For example, they understand: I have two hands. I can hold two toys. I have two feet, two arms, two legs, two eyes, and two ears! Wow! Learning basic math concepts at an early age can help children learn about more complex mathematical relationships as they grow older.

Here are 8 easy Math ideas to incorporate into your setting:

1. Weights

Set out a bucket balance such as the See-Inside Bucket Balance, along with several different toys and materials. Encourage the children to pick out two objects. One child might pick a block and another child might pick out a toy apple. Ask the children, “Which one do you think weighs more? The block or the apple?” Encourage the children to place one object in each side of the balance. Help the children notice how it tips. Which one weighs more? Repeat with other toys and materials. Preschool-aged children might enjoy creating a simple graph or chart to keep track of their observations and findings.

2. Fill the Coffee Filter

Offer the children coffee filters in a variety of sizes. You can also cut them down into smaller circles to provide a wider range of sizes. Offer the children pipettes and liquid watercolors. Ask the children, “How many drops do you think it will take to fill the circle?” Help them count each drop until the coffee filter is full of color. Repeat with the other coffee filters. This activity is geared more for older, preschool-aged children. However, toddlers will also enjoy experimenting with the pipettes and the art and science components of the activity. Their drops and counting will not be as intentional.

3. Water Games

Water games are perfect for introducing math concepts, especially for toddlers. Set out a water table and assorted toys and materials. You might include cups, bowls, measuring cups, pails, spoons, small plastic pitchers, and bath animal toys. As the children explore, use language rich in mathematical words and concepts to describe their actions. For example, say, “Andrea, you have an empty cup. Oh, look at you pour water into it with the pitcher. Now it is about half full. You’re adding more water, and now it’s completely full. You dumped it out. It’s empty again.” Another example is: “Jace, I see you are playing with the animals. You just put in one frog and two owls. Now the bowl is full of animals. I wonder how many animals would fit in this pail? Should we try and find out together?” Always directly supervise water play.

4. Baking Muffins

Baking and cooking are great ways to introduce measurements and numbers, and it is often children’s first exposure to the concept of fractions without them even knowing it. Bake some healthy muffins with the children, such as Easy Moist Healthy Zucchini Muffins. Have the children help you scoop, measure, and pour the ingredients. Use lots of number words and counting as you create the recipe. For example, say, “We need three of these ½ cups of flour. Laura, you will scoop and pour one, then Connor will do the second one, and then Sam, you will measure and pour the third one.” Or, say, “We need to put one muffin liner in each slot of this tin. Everyone will have a turn, and we will all count together.” Always check for allergies before serving foods. Make substitutions as needed.

5. Sorting

Encourage the children to sort objects often. Keep it simple for toddlers. They might try sorting all the blue blocks from the white blocks. Encourage more complex sorting with different attributes as they gain skill and grow older. For example, offer shoes in different sizes and styles. Encourage the children to sort by size and then type of shoe (sneakers, sandals, boots, etc.)

6. Measurements

Young toddlers start to learn about measurement by exploring the opposites little and big. Older toddlers and preschoolers love to start measuring in different ways. Offer tape measures and plastic rulers often for the children to measure objects around the room and outside. They will especially love measuring how tall they are! Keep measurement activities interesting by measuring in unique and fun ways. For example, in the summer you could measure using flowers, or during the Christmas holiday measure with peppermint sticks (straight candy sticks, not candy canes). Encourage them to see how many peppermint sticks it takes to measure the length of a stocking, a stack of blocks, a table, or other objects of interest to them.

7. Nesting Games

Place items that the children can nest together in a basket. You could include basic nesting cups such as The First Years Stack Up Cup Toys or some in another interesting shape such as Green Toys Stacking Cups, which doubles as a stacking toy. Set the basket in a play area. The children can freely explore the toys. You will likely see lots of problem-solving as the children learn how to nest the objects by size. Be available to help if frustrations arise, but lots of important learning takes place in trial-and-error problem-solving. Nesting is great for infants and toddlers. Use these toys with preschool-aged children in more complex ways. For example, the Green Toys Stacking Cups can be used to help them learn about volume. The stars marked 1 and 2 will fill up the star marked 3.

8. Shape Tile Building

Offer the children enclosed shape magnetic tiles to build with. The Magna-Tiles® Starter Set mentioned in the Engineering article would work great here as well. The children can easily connect the shapes to make new shapes and build. Older children can learn about dimension and symmetry while they play. Use lots of shape words in your narratives with the children.


What is steam?

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. Many people think that STEAM can only be used with older, school-aged children. However, toddlers and preschoolers are naturally curious and enjoy exploring, discovering, and solving problems. STEAM can be an easy way to incorporate hands-on play and learning. Follow along to learn more about each component of STEAM and some activities to try with your little learners.

Read about the S in STEAM

Read about the T in STEAM

Read about the E in STEAM

Read about the A in STEAM

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