How to build your preschoolers foundation in math!

How to build your preschoolers foundation in math!

Did you know preschool mathematics knowledge predicts achievement even into high school? Which means it is incredibly important to build a foundation in math before you focus on anything else.

In the classroom, I primarily taught math. The number of kids who I taught that did NOT have a strong foundation in numbers was staggering. My fourth graders didn’t understand basic addition (which is a 1st and 2nd grade skill) and regrouping.

There is a big reason for this, but the main one being that math is rushed. 

Back when I was teaching my 4th graders the master teacher almost stopped me because she was so used to teaching the algorithm (equations first) that she didn’t think the kids would understand it. But the kids that I gave the manipulatives to first, were able to create the equation on their own before I even gave it to them. They could see the patterns in the math based on the hands-on manipulative way of teaching. It was so cool to see because they had a better conceptual understanding. 

To drive this point home further. My husband Eric has a degree in mechanical engineering, told me that countless times people would drop out of calculus because they didn’t have a strong enough foundation in math skills so calculus didn’t make sense to them.



@sandboxacademy Learning math concepts should ALWAYS start with hands-on activities. Math is a concrete subject. Written numbers and symbols are abstract representations of concrete subjects. Our kids understanding of math will be stronger IF we start with real life items they can touch and feel. Then move on to abstract numberals and symbols. 


Math is a concrete subject. We use abstract numerals and symbols to represent a real concept. 


When it comes to math you are building a foundation and you want it strong. And that takes time! My recommendation is to teach math in a concrete way. Use a story (word problems) because context makes it more concrete and fun.

When math is taught with manipulatives and stories, kids feel like it’s play. They engage, and they get it. 

Math is a skill that builds on itself, so when your kids are little focus on the basics like number values and number relationships for longer than you think is necessary. By having that strong foundation it will allow those harder skills in the future to come with ease and make sense.

Here’s a breakdown of the different terms you will hear when working with preschool math:

Number values: The written numeral (example 5 always has a value of 5)

1 to 1 correspondence: Each item in a sett holds a value of 1. Together they hold a larger value. (example 6 dots, would mean that each dot holds a value of 1 but when put together they have the value of 6)

Number relations: how numbers interact with each other. (example: 5 is less than 6 and more than 4) 

Math needs to be taught in concrete ways FIRST. I often hear that parents think their kids shouldn’t rely on fingers, manipulatives, or counters. And that they need to move through that faster, but kids need to understand the concrete concept before they can use abstract numerals. 

At some point I do want my kids to know their math facts. But not because they are memorized, rather because they have such a strong conceptual understanding. 

Here is an example of where your preschooler should be starting:

  1. Instead of writing out problems with numbers, grab a pipe cleaner and add beads to it in whatever number you choose. As an example add 7 beads to the pipe cleaner. You can rearrange or regroup the beads along the pipe cleaner to show 7 multiple ways. You do not have to write the number sentences and instead stitch with hands-on regrouping. This kind of hands-on learning has to come before the written problems. (you can get the example in my instagram highlights here)

Hands on concepts can be used for every math concept for every age and stage. Not just for your preschoolers and kindergarteners. So remember…

  1. Slow down - math is rushed. We call this going a mile wide and an inch deep. Instead we want to build a strong foundation. We want to go a mile deep and an inch wide. Meaning less content, but understand that content inside and out.
  2. Math is a concrete subject - practice it in hands on ways with examples.

To close this entire blog post out I also want to share an unpopular opinion with you:

I love common core math! I have studies the standards in depth. They explicitly have teachers teach concepts before algorithms. 

However, so often people don’t like it because it is not always implemented well. And most teachers were not well trained on how to implement common core (it was thrown at them often at the last minute.) Adults often don’t understand it because they were taught algorithms (abstract) vs concepts which leads to frustrated teachers, parents, and kids! Hence why I wrote this entire blog post!


@sandboxacademy Common core math is about conceptual understandings of math and number relations before you get to abstract thinking. 


Now if you want activities that target all of these skills with preschool journal pages and tons of fun and easy activities to encourage learning through play, I created the Preschool Playbook!


Thank you so much for trusting me to share what I know about education. I am so grateful for you being here. 

xoxo Emily