Category Archives: Ideas for Teachers

Fun with Toddlers: Sensory Play


A sensory bin is a simple toddler play activity: take a plastic tub, fill it with rice (or another filler), add scoops and containers to pour into (or other tools) and a few of your child’s small toys, and let your child play. The benefits for your child are: learning to use tools, using fine motor skills, and sensory exploration. The benefits for you are that your child will play independently for quite some time while you get other things done! (Expect some clean-up time when you’re done!)

Learn all about sensory play in: The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Play.

Teaching Math Skills

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Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about which skills kids need to succeed in school or in the work world, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach their kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? I(‘m not talking math drills and flash cards and pushing academics here! I’m talking about playing with numbers like we “play” with words and stories.)

Here are some opportunities and resources (click on the links to learn more):

Hands-On Activities to Teach Core Math Skills

  • Counting / Number Sense
    • You can count almost anything – how many blocks in your tower, how many goldfish crackers on your plate, how many books do we get at the library
    • You can ask: who has more? Divide objects into two piles – which is bigger?
    • Set the table – each person gets one plate, one spoon, five berries, etc.
    • Count money – it’s trickier to get the different values of different coins.
  • Representation – recognizing that the numeral 5 and the letter f-i-v-e can be used as symbols to represent how many physical objects you have
    • Play with magnetic numbers, assemble puzzles with pieces shaped like numbers, make numbers with play-dough, draw numbers in the sand
    • Do connect the dot puzzles, do physical games where they have to jump from the paper numbered one to two to three
    • Make number cards with the numeral and word written on them. When you count physical objects, have them find the card the shows the total.
  • Shapes and Spatial Relationships
    • Play with shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, blocks, building toys. Make crafts.
    • Talk about (and play games with) positional words: under, next to, between…
  • Measurement
    • Cook together, using a recipe.
    • Compare things: line up in order by size.
    • Measure with standard units (8 inches) and non-standard (12 paper clips long)
  • Patterns
    • Help them notice sequence: first we do X, then Y. After ____, we always _____.
    • Sort laundry and pair the socks. Separate M&M’s by color, then make a pattern.
    • Build patterns: red bead, yellow bead, red…  Clap rhythm patterns.

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities! Or go to

Sing Counting Songs and Read Counting Books

  • Math Songs. Counting songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…) You can find a huge collection of math songs for all ages at

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation: Check out the blog It has examples of math concepts into conversations with kids in an engaging way. More ideas: and

Bedtime Math: Every night, before or after the bedtime story, add in a math story problem.

You could make up your own. They could be based on your day (“Today at dinner, there were 8 slices of pizza. You ate two, and I ate three. How many did Dad eat?”). They could be based on the book you just read. (“The Cat in the Hat is holding a book, an umbrella and a fish bowl. How many things is that?” “How many pieces of fruit did the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat?”

Or, you can download the Bedtime Math app (it’s free!) or buy a Bedtime Math book if you prefer a screen free option. They offer a new kid-friendly story problem every day, with questions appropriate for three different levels of math skills, for kids age 3 – 9.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills. For younger kids, keep the score simple – one basket equals one point. For older kids, make the scoring more challenging: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.” When watching sports in person or on TV, have your child keep a written score tally.

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food, try these games. Hide 2 – 5 sugar packets behind your menu. Lift the menu to briefly show them the items, put it back down, and ask how many they saw. Tap on the table 1 – 6 times, and have them set out that many packets. “There are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”

Board games are my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice their learning math. Research shows that the more board games that a kid played and the more different settings he played games in, the better his performance in four math tasks.

Let them see you using math. Point out to your child when you use math – to calculate a tip, compare the cost of two items, figure out how long it will take to drive somewhere, or to help them decide what to buy with their allowance. (For a discussion of financial literacy for kids and how to handle allowance:

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feel like you need to get flash cards, math apps and workbooks and drill basic math facts over and over. Let math be fun at home, not a terrible bore.
  • Don’t try to push kids along faster – push them deeper – rather than moving on to the next step on the math skills checklist as fast as you can, make sure you’ve really explored each step in depth first. For example, some parents want to toddler to count to 20, so they push them fast. It takes a long time for a toddler to really truly understand the difference between one and more than one. And then to understand the difference between one and two, and more than two. Let them stay there till they really get it, and then they’ll be able to master more complicated ideas in the future. But rush this one, and everything is confusing from there on out!

My other blog, Inventors Of Tomorrow, is about teaching STEM skills to kids. I have more details there. Start with the post on developmental stages of math learning.

Play-Dough Recipe


Our students are often surprised to discover we make all our own play-dough. I tell them: you should make all your own play-dough!! It’s cheaper, it’s much nicer texture to work with, and shapes much better than commercial PlayDoh. It also doesn’t dry out as quickly. Plus, I hate the smell of commercial PlayDoh… when you make your own, you can leave it unscented – my preference – or you can add scents with a few drops of essential oils. And making a batch takes only 15 minutes from start to finishing clean-up… or a little longer if your little one “helps.”

There’s LOTS of recipes out there. Here’s the one that works well for me:

Recipe 1

Mix together: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 tbsp. cream of tartar, 4 tbsp. oil (note, 4 tbsp. is the same as 1/4 cup)

Boil 2 cups water

Mix in separate container: 1.5 cups of the boiling water plus food coloring – make the color STRONG! (I used Betty Crocker Gel in my last few batches, and found I used 1/3 – 1/2 a tube in a batch)

Mix the colored water in with the other ingredients. Stir well.

Then spread a thin layer of flour on a counter or cutting board. When it’s cool enough to touch, place the dough on that and knead it. What you’re trying to do is create  good, consistent dough that’s just the right texture for kids to play with. If it’s sticking to your hands, add a little flour. If it’s too dry and crumbly, add a little hot water. (It’s a little different each time – if the weather is really humid, or really dry, that affects the dough.) Knead till it’s just right. Usually takes a few minutes. When not in use, store in a ziplock or a closed plastic container. It keeps for weeks or months, depending on how frequently it’s used.

Recipe 2 – A recipe my co-teacher Cym likes has slightly different proportions / ingredients, but the process is the same.

3 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 tbsp. corn starch, 4 tbsp. cream of tartar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 2 cups boiling water, food color.

Cloud Dough

While I’m sharing recipes, another Cym recipe that we use a lot is her cocoa cloud dough. Mix together 1.5 cups flour, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, and 1/4 – 1/2 cup of any edible oil (canola oil, safflower… whatever you’ve got.) For a big batch, 6  cups flour, 2 cups cocoa, 1 – 2 cups oil. How much oil you use depends on the texture you want. We use this in the sensory bin to simulate dirt so we want it pretty crumbly (it looks like dirt, but it won’t hurt any little ones who decide to eat it! and it smells good. See pictures on my other blog, Inventors of Tomorrow, here and here.) If you want to shape it more, use more oil.

Learn more about cloud dough at Babble Dabble Do.

Using Play-Dough

You can play with play-dough directly on most tables, but if you’re worried about your table, you can put out a plastic tray, place-mat or table cloth to play on.

In class, each week, we put out new tools with the play-dough. Using a variety of tools teaches small motor skills, strengthens hand muscles (helpful for learning to write), and teaches life skills. Here’s just some to try: rolling pin, cookie cutters, garlic press, a plastic knife, kid scissors, spatula, pizza cutter, pastry cutter, melon baller, wooden hammer, napkin rings (can cut circles of play-dough), a cup or container they can press down on dough to flatten a circle of dough, rubber stamps to press impressions in the dough. You can also mix other toys in with the dough – like plastic animals to leave footprints in the dough, toy trucks to leave tire tracks, shapes from a shape sorter tray, etc.