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Clocks, Dominos and Geoboards: Using Inexpensive Materials to Teach Math
By Carolyn Tomlin

Immediately after graduating from college, Emily found her dream job—a position teaching 5-year-olds. After completing requirements for a degree in elementary education and a concentration in early childhood she felt prepared to handle the joys and, yes, sometimes -- problems of teaching young children. However, she wasn’t prepared to walk into a classroom without the necessary curriculum materials. “Everything looks so old and worn out,” she confessed to another kindergarten teacher in the same building. Boxes of broken equipment filled one corner; in another, books with missing pages and torn edges were stacked on a propped up bookcase; and simple items for science and math appeared nonexistent. “If I’m having this problem, perhaps other teachers experience the same situation. What can we do?”


Alan, a stay-at-home dad, cared for his two young children during the day while his wife worked in a medical lab. After his wife returns from work, Alan attends night school to complete a degree in business. “I have so many ideas that I would like to try with the kids,” says Alan. “Magazine and television commercials advertise educational toys guaranteed to increase my children’s I.Q. Like other parents, I want the best for my kids. But with me in school, we’re on a very tight budget right now. Are their objects found around the house that I could use for teaching math or science?”


If you’re a parent or teacher who believes young children require expensive instructional materials for learning, refocus your thinking. Creative people use simple objects found in the home and classroom to teach basic math skills. That’s not to say that the more expensive items developed by manufactures don’t work—they do. But there are substitutions.


Introducing Young Children to Math

Most parents and teachers have no problem reading books to young children. Though books they learn vocabulary, enjoy holding a text and turning the pages. However, when it comes to helping children learn and love math—it’s often a different thing.


Regardless of what you may think, math is not a series of skill, drill and rote memorization. Helping children learn the basic skills of math can be fun and exciting for everyone involved. Many parents and teacher know this fact; Think outside the box. Be creative. See things another way. 


To begin, realize that math is everywhere. It’s used everyday. The key to making it fun is to think of ways to incorporate math in your life. For example:

  1. Use poems and rhymes that contain numbers, such as the nursery rhyme As I was going to St. Ives, Down in the Meadow, Five Little Monkeys or This Old Man.
  2. Include numbers as you pick up toys and place them in a box; count the number of raisins on a plate; count the number of time you bounce a ball; the number of steps between rooms in your house and etc. 
  3. Sort and classify common objects. Match socks by size and color; sort big and little socks, match gloves or mittens. Sort flatware by placing all the forks, knives and spoons in separate containers.  
  4. Work on one-to-correspondence by asking the child to give each person a napkin, fork, and spoon. 
  5. Exercise during winter months by asking the child to take different size steps, such as baby, medium and giant steps or hops. 
  6. Teach estimation by filling a plastic tub with sand and adding a 1/2  and 1 cup containers. Ask: How many ½ cups will 1 cup hold? 
  7. Collect buttons and allow your preschooler to sort buttons by color, those having 2-eyes or 4-eyes; or those sewed on by a shank. 
  8. Play board games that require basic math skills. Work on the developmental level of the child. 
  9. Cut fabric into shapes and help the child construct a simple quilt. Use geometric shapes, including squares, triangles and rectangles.  
  10. Add dominoes as part of teaching numbers. These old favorites are still loved by children and teach matching, adding and subtraction. 
  11. Cut a piece of pegboard from a hardware store into 12-inch blocks for a geoboard. Use golf tees and rubber bands to teach numbers and place value.

Brown Envelope Math Packet

What’s a big math idea that requires a minimum amount of work, needs little storage space and rotates among teachers? Brown envelopes used for mailing, meet all the requirements and are easily stored in a filing cabinet. Use the following tips to get you started:

  • Use the 9 x 12-inch size for all packets. 
  • Schedule a planning meeting for teachers and parent volunteers.
  • List standards or basic math skills you will cover during the year.
  • Discuss ways to teach these skills, yet make math fun and exciting for children. Use bright colors and designs.
  • Include approaches to adapting and modifying these activities to children with special needs.
  • Ask each teacher to prepare 5 new packets annually.
  • Each teacher uses the packets and rotates them to the next teacher.
  • Cut-out letters or numbers to identify the math activity. Paste on the front of the packet and laminate for durability.
  • Create math lessons that enrich the curriculum while making it fun.
  • Include game pieces, dice, cutouts or other objects needed for the activity or game -- along with directions inside the packet.
  • Plan for both small group and individual math activities. When a child needs additional practice with a math skill, use the suggested activity.
  • After the packets have been used by each classroom, return to the one who developed the packet. Store in a filing cabinet until needed again.


Books That Make Math Fun

The following books for preschoolers are only a few of the selections that can be used to teach number sense, patterns, size, shape and problem solving.

  • Clifford the Small Red Puppy by Norman Bridwell
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • One White Sail: A Caribbean Counting Book by S.T. Garne
  • Each Orange Had Eight Slices, by Paul Giganti
  • Ten Little Rabbits  by Virginia Grossman
  • Spirals, Curves, Fanshapes, and Lines by Tana Hoban
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears by James Marshall
  • One Two, One Pair! by Bruce McMillan
  • Five Little Ducks (book and tape) by Raffi
  • Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
  • Mouse Count by Ellen S. Walsh
  • Emily’s First 100 Days of School by Rosemary Wells


Sidebar: Supply List for Preschool Math

The following are only a few of the free or inexpensive materials for teaching math, both at home and in the classroom.

  • Clocks (one large wall clock and individual clocks made from a paper plate, a brad and cardstock hands)
  • Counters (blocks, beads, sticks, straws, buttons, clothespins, bottle caps)
  • Scales and objects to weight (pans of sand, rice, water)
  • Rulers, yardsticks, tape measure
  • Thermometers
  • Measuring devices (spoons, cup, quart)
  • Bead and counting frame 
  • Cuisenaire rods
  • Number lines
  • Play money (coins and dollar bills in play money)
  • Geoboards
  • Flannel board (numbers, letters and cut-outs to illustrate characters and objects in stories)
  • Pegs and pegboards 
  • Dominos
  • Problem or activity cards
  • Place value charts


Resources: Web Sites

The following web sites provide interactive activities for parents to use in the home and teachers in the classroom.


This site invites the child to experience math as they play in, describe and think about their world.



This site contains math activities for parents and their 2-5 year old children. As you pay for groceries, talk about money. Count the steps from one room to another, ask how the child wants the sandwich cut (half or fourths).



This site contains simple activities in the home to develop math skills with children.



Copley, J. (2001). The Young Child and Math. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon


Day, B. (1983). Early Childhood Education: Creative Leaning

    Activities (2nd  ed.) New York: Macmillan.

Parent Spot (2005) “Easy as 1-2-3: Introducing Math to Young Children.”

    www.mohonasen.org/03parents/PreschoolParent/preschool math


Short, P. & Davidson, B. (1980). Totalaction: Ideas and Activities for

  Teaching Children Ages Five to Eight. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear Pub. 



Carolyn R. Tomlin has been a preschool director, taught kindergarten and been an assistant professor of education at Union University, Jackson, TN. She contributes to numerous educational publications.