Playing with Numbers

Ages 3 to 5 

Why I Created This Kit:

Children have an amazing capacity to learn through play. Somewhere along my own math journey, I began to feel that I was not good at math. I separated school math from my daily life. The plain truth is that we use math constantly, sometimes unconciously. As I was playing with young children this summer, I started looking for ways to enjoy math through stories, play, and song. Then I read Talking Math with Your Kids and found fun and fantastic ways to learn while talking math every day. The author, Christopher Danielson, is a parent and educator who promotes math conversation because “children learn to county by observation and practice. And they learn through conversation.” I love his perspective: model good math skills, encourage children in math, give them freedom to get the answer wrong as they learn, and whenever they ask if you want to hear them count the answer is, “Yes!” Check out Christopher Danielson’s website Talking Math With Your Kids for great tips on talking math, thinking about what we learn when talking math, and tips on starting the conversation.


Did You Know?

By about age 5 or 6, children can usually...

  • Identify and write numbers from 0 to 20

  • Count by ones and tens to 100

  • Count forward from any given number, i.e. starting to count at 3 and continuing in sequence)

  • Add two numbers with sums up to 10

  • Subtract two numbers with a difference between 0 and 10

  • Use matching and counting to compare groups of objects to determine values such as greater than, less than, and equal

Math is fun! If your child cannot understand concepts the first time or even after numerous attempts it is okay. If he or she forgets something you have practiced together, there is nothing to worry about. It is more important to introduce math ideas and enjoy them together than to expect him or her to understand every math concept immediately. The more you talk about math and support your child, the more progress you’ll be able to observe in his or her math skills.



One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi (Ages 4-8)

One Grain of Rice is worthy of regular re-reading. The illustrations are exquisite and the story is an enduring fable. When the raja grants Rani her wish, she bravely makes a request that will benefit her hungry village. Rani wishes for one grain of rice today and for thirty days, double the rice he gave her the day before. The final total equals more than one billion grains of rice. The people are fed and the raja learns the true meaning of wisdom. (Zoobean)

Before you read One Grain of Rice: 

  • Look at the front and back covers, read the title, and ask your child, “What do you think this book is about?” “Where do think the story takes place?” and “What makes you think ____?”
  • Hand him or her one grain of rice and ask, “How important is one little grain of rice?” and “What can we do with one grain of rice?”
  • Then watch a book trailer, like this digital book talk for One Grain of Rice and ask, “Based on this book trailer, what are three things we can look for as we read One Grain of Rice?”

While you are reading, pause, set the book down to signal that you’re sharing rather than reading, and ask your child questions about famine, hunger, what could be done to feed the village, what they would ask the Raja for when he offers anything to Rani.


  • Pull out a container of rice. After Rani asks for one grain of rice and for the amount of rice to be doubled each day for thirty days, ask your child to estimate how many grains of rice that will be after thirty days. Give him or her time to think about it and use grains of rice to try to come up with an answer. Accept any answer. Younger children will make a guess and older children might be able to think about how many grains it will be and share the reasoning behind their answer. After chatting about it, say, “Let’s keep reading and find out.”

After reading, check to see if anyone’s guess or estimation was close asking:

  • “Were we close when we thought it would be ________ grains of rice?” “Was the number greater than our guess or less than our guess?” “Are you surprised that it was so many grains of rice?” and “What can Rani do with so many grains of rice?”


Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean (Ages 3-7)

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons … no, three groovy buttons … no, two groovy buttons …Pete is a fun and funky introduction to counting backward or talking about subtraction. After reading Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons, ask your child “Why was the number of buttons Pete had smaller each time he lost a button?”

After reading, grab some buttons, count them together and start taking them away one button at a time. Ask your child,

  • “What will happen to our count each time we take away one button?” and “We started with ____ buttons, if we take away one button (or two, or three), how many will we have left? Is that more buttons than we started with or fewer buttons than we started with?”

Following the story, the Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons song makes for a fun sing along with or without the book. When you and your child sing this song, try starting with different numbers and counting down from 5, 6, or 7 buttons.


Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell

Cathryn Falwell brings together great visual, story, and counting elements in her contemporary family counting book. I love that this traditional African-American family of ten includes five children and three generations, who shop together, work together, and eat together, highlighting family unity. The active, rhythmic text accompanies bright, detailed collages -- I love the recycle reminders on the shopping bags.

After reading Feast for 10 pull out your math journal and create a counting story starring your own family. What you will need:

  • Math journal
  • Scratch paper
  • Paper, felt, yarn, photos, and magazines for picture creating collages
  • Scissors
  • Markers, pens, pencils, crayons
  • Glue stick

What to do:

  • On scratch paper, record ideas for each number in your counting story and the setting. Write a story that recounts a shared experience or fictional tale.

Ask your child some questions to get the story going and offer some suggestions, if needed. For example:

  • Where do we want our counting story to take place? (zoo, vacation, park)
  • How high do we want to count? (5, 10, 20, 100)
  • Should we write about something our family has done or do we want to write fiction?
  • What do we want to write about for each number? (animals, people, places, things)

After you are both happy with the plan, start writing and illustrating your counting story together. Write one or two sentences for each number. Give your child some sample sentences, then ask him or her to complete them.

For example:

  • At the zoo, we saw 1 _____ and 2 _____.
  • On the moon, we found 1 _____, 2_______, and 3 _______.

Use drawings, photographs, or pictures from magazines to illustrate the story.


How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Ages 3-7)

"How many seeds are in a pumpkin?" Mr. Tiffin asks his class as they gather around the big, medium, and small pumpkins on his desk. Robert, the biggest kid, guesses that the largest one has a million seeds; Elinor, sounding like she knows what she's talking about, guesses the medium one has 500 seeds; and Anna, who likes even numbers better than odd ones, guesses that the little one has 22. Charlie, the smallest boy in the class, doesn't have a guess. Counting pumpkin seeds is messy business, but once the slimy job is done, to everyone's surprise, the smallest pumpkin has the most seeds! As Charlie happily exclaims, "Small things have a lot going on inside of them." (Amazon)

Before reading, head to the kitchen and gather a few pieces of different sized fruit with seeds in them, apples, grapes, oranges, etc.

  • Ask your child, “How many seeds do you think are in this orange?” Write down his or her guess and then write down your own estimate. Peel and cut the orange, pulling out seeds and counting them together.
  • Ask your child, “How close were we when we thought there were _____ seeds in this orange?” Write down the actual number of seeds you found in the orange and ask, “Is the actual number of seeds greater than or less than the number we estimated would be in the orange?”
  • Check together with subtraction and talk about the difference between the estimates and the actual number of seeds. Try smaller and larger pieces of the same fruit to explore whether or not the size of the fruit and the number of seeds inside the fruit have any relationship.

As you share your fruit snack and read How Many Seeds In a Pumpkin, estimate how many seeds will be in each of Mr. Tifflin’s pumpkins and how close the children’s guesses are to the actual number of seeds in each pumpkin.

For some pumpkin specific activities see the parent activity guide for How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin from Reading is Fundamental.  


From One to One Hundred by Teri Sloat


From One to One Hundred engages readers of all ages in counting (1-10 and by tens to 100) and searching. The adorable illustrations include a corresponding number of people and items to find for each number -- can you find 7 cacti on the 7 page or 50 dogs in the dog race on the 50 page? On a first read, take plenty of time to explore the items on each page. During later readings, you and your child can add your own dialogue to this wordless counting book. Start by telling stories or asking your child, “What is happening? Who is doing that?” Then ask him or her for some dialogue by asking, “What do you think the two seals are saying to the zookeeper? Do you think they’re telling him that the penguins are running away with his fish? What do those seals sound like when they say that?” Add some silliness by counting the search items (on this page the seals, giraffes, penguins, and balls) in the seal’s voice, the penguin’s voice, or the zookeeper’s voice while finding each of the search items together.

Vocabulary and symbols

  • No doubt, your child knows his or her numbers. As you talk about math together, use correct terms and phrases that explain the function, such as subtract / take away so your child repeatedly hears the terminology and understands what you are asking him or her to do. Frequently add new words and symbols to your math journal, such as:
    • add + plus and join
    • subtract - minus and take away
    • equals =
    • greater than >
    • less than <


Go to the Library

In the Children’s Room of your local library, you will find nonfiction books that cover all of the basic math functions. The nonfiction section is often arranged in Dewey Decimal order, so read the labels on the end of the shelf, looking for the 513 section, then browse 513 and 513.2 for nonfiction math books. For the most part, all of the skill books about addition are similar -- the function is explained and the skill is practiced. The variable here is the artwork. Let your child choose books that are appealing to him or her.

Keep the math conversation going by asking, “How many books do you think we will find today?” and “How many books will we find about math?”


Get your child involved in any meal preparation that can involve math. Pull up a chair and let him or her observe and help while you talk about the math you are using including measuring, counting, estimating, and timing. Then, set the table together, counting the number of plates, cups, and utensils needed. A bonus for you is that you now have someone who is excited about setting the supper table!

Math Sensory Bin

Sensory bins are great learning fun for independent play and play with a parent. They don’t have to be elaborate or messy, just use what you have around the house. If you are using small items or filler, younger children should be supervised so no marbles end up lodged in a nose, ear, or wind pipe.

What you will need:

  • A tub or box
  • Filler, such as rice, marbles, or confetti
  • Tools, such as chopsticks, kitchen tongs, or a measuring cup for exploring
  • Favorite items to count, add, subtract, and estimate, such as cars, action figures, or miniature animals
  • Play numbers or numbered blocks 0-9
  • Dice

What to do:

  • Tuck items and one set of numbers 0-9 into the tub, some under the filler and some visible
  • Lay out another set of numbers 0-9 on the table
  • Roll the die and ask your child, “How many cars do we need to find in the bin?” As he or she pulls the items out of the tub, line the items up along the corresponding numbers on the table.
  • Ask him or her, “Can you find the number we rolled in the bin?”
  • Roll the die again and ask your child, “How many cars do we need to find this time?” and “Is this number greater than or less than the number of cars you already pulled out?” After he or she pulls the items out of the tub, add the two sets of items. You can count the items to find the sum.
  • Roll the die again and ask your child, “How many cars do you need to put back in the bin?” “Is this number greater than or less than the number of cars you already pulled out?” “Can we put _____ cars back in the bin?” If not, ask, “Why not?” You can use the numbers 0-9 to visually lay out this subtraction problem. If your child doesn’t recognize a subtraction problem, he or she can still become familiar with problems as you lay them out, use terms such as subtract and take away, and point to the numbers as you talk.
  • Continue adding and subtracting as your child is interested. When he or she begins to lose interest, leave the tub out for play. You can return to math concepts another day. Children need to regularly return to new math ideas for long-term learning.

Game Night

Pull out table games that help strengthen math skills for a fun family night like Uncle Wiggly, Dominoes, and Chutes & Ladders. Here a couple of favorites.

In Hi-Ho Cherry-O, players spin to see how many pieces of fruit he or she gets to add to their own fruit basket. If you land on the bird, dog, or bucket, you have to subtract some cherries from your bucket. The object of the game is to be the first player to get ten (10) cherries into his or her own fruit basket. Hi-Ho Cherry-O reinforces counting, addition, and subtraction for players ages 3 & up.

Zingo 1-2-3, like a bingo, helps children count while they practice simple sums. This game covers the numbers 1-12. The object of the game is to fill your entire Zingo card. As you play, frequently help your child recognize the number words that correspond with the numbers or items you are counting. I appreciate that Zingo 1-2-3 strengthens counting, number recognition, addition, and grouping skills.  Ages 4 & up.


Counting to 100 by 10s and by 1s

  • In about 4 minutes, with the catchy beat of this counting song, you can count along. Try clapping or stomping with the beat for active learners.

The Sheep Counting Dream

  • In Alex Raffi’s bedtime, rhyming story, a little girl is so excited about her birthday that she cannot sleep. Her father teaches her to count sheep, tucks her in, and turns out the light. Will she be able to fall asleep or will she count to a billion sleep by morning?

Basic Addition: Simple Math with Nellie and Ned

  • Nellie and Ned take some of the stress out of addition by substituting numbers with objects. Instead of adding two numbers, Nellie shows Ned an addition problem with cows, chickens, and dogs, in place of the numbers to show him that addition starts by couting the total number of objects.

Addition Rock Song

  • This catchy song is so easy to remember, you’ll find yourself singing it in the car, even when the kids aren’t along. 1 + 1 is 2; 2+2 is 4 … 5+ 5 is 10. Verse one is a sing-along and verse two allows you and your child to fill-in-the blank.

Sesame Street Subtraction

  • The Word on the Street is subtraction. This short Sesame Street clip defines subtraction and provides examples for children to see subtraction in action. Pause the video and try to solve the subtraction problem together or try to recreate the problem. After watching the video, pull out some items such as fruit, to create and solve your own subtraction problems.

Five Finger Jive

  • Using just five fingers, the Five Finger Jive helps children practice subtraction. After listening to the song a few times, stop after each number’s verse and check to see if your child understood the concepts of taking away numbers in subtraction by holding up fingers and asking something like the following, “If I hold up three fingers and take away 2, how many fingers are left?” Ask one or two times after each number so it doesn’t feel like a chore to your child. Mix it up by asking, “If I hold up 2 fingers and take away 2, how many fingers are left?” and “Now you try it, hold up some fingers, tell me how many you’re holding up, then take some of them away and I’ll try to tell you how many are left.” Let your child do this for you as long as it is still enjoyable for him or her. Frequently ask, “Am I right?” or try giving a wrong answer to allow him or her to explain to you the idea of taking away a number.
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Cookie Monster Sings About Subtraction

  • Poor Cookie Monster has six cookies, but a boy eats three of them, a girl asks for one of his cookies, and Guy Smiley takes two. Grab some cookies and act out Cookie Monster’s song with him then try Cookie Monster’s subtraction song with different numbers of cookies.

Five Little Monkey’s Jumping on the Bed

  • Need a take along subtraction song? You can sing Five Little Monkey’s in the car or while walking in the neighborhood. Try counting down from ten little monkey’s jumping on the bed or, if your young mathematician needs a challenge, start at ten and have two or three of those poor little monkey’s fall off at the same time.

Cyberchase: Number Sense from PBS (Game)

  • A simple greater than game, Cyberchase gives you three numbers to rearrange into a number that is greater than the number in Hacker’s Number Machine. Explain to your child that we can rearrange our numbers in the correct order by asking, “Which of these three numbers is greater than the first number in the Number Machine?” and “Which of the two remaining numbers is greater than the second number in the Number Machine?” After a few rounds of asking the question out loud, allow your child to talk through the process independently. If the numbers you’ve been given cannot be rearranged to be bigger than the number in the Number Machine, simply hit the “Can’t Be Bigger” button.

Peg + Cat

  • Peg + Cat is a recent addition to the PBS family. Peg and Cat episodes and games cover basic math. For example, at Peg’s Pizza Place you can help prepare the pizza orders by counting out the toppings to add to each pizza order. In Peg’s Hungry Pirates adventure, you can help Peg find buried treasure by counting.

Brain Pop Jr.

  •  If you have a Brain Pop Jr. account (about $10 a month), you have access to their math movies and interactive lessons created for children in grades K - 3. Share some movies with your preschooler to introduce or reinforce addition, subtraction, and estimation skills.


Pre-K Letters & Numbers Pro (Ages 3-7)

  • Use an app, like Pre-K Letters and Numbers Pro to practice identifying and writing numbers. This is a tracing application aimed at building a foundation of the English language and numeracy, develop fine motor skills, understand phonics and build vocabulary with the bonus of blending common letters and counting. Unique characters, music, sounds and over 75 fruit, vegetables, animal and items around the house illustrations help with the learning experience. (Zoobean)

Moose Math (Ages 5-8)

Moose Math provides a great introduction of basic elementary math concepts (counting, addition, subtraction, sorting, geometry) in a fun and creative way! More than just problem solving puzzles, this app guides children through age appropriate narration to encourage and help them build on math skills. My four-year old and I love making the "Moose Juice" recipes—the sound effects and animations are superb! (Tara P., Zoobean Curator)


Magikid Numbers (Ages 3-5)

  • The app not only teaches the concepts of math but also incorporates language development.  My preschooler and I were able to discus how words can mean the same as numbers, e.g. two and both, three and few, etc. The story is imaginative and the illustrations and animanations are bold and colorful. Book One is free, and the paid upgrade is worth it.  (Tara P., Zoobean Curator)
  • Magikid Numbers lets kids embark on a mathematical adventure in the Kingdom of Numbers. In the app, kids join the young Prince and the Wizard as they learn about the numbers from 1–10. The app is presented in a series of 10 mini storybooks, with each book focusing on a specific number. Book 1 follows the Prince on his first day of school and then discovers that one is a lonely but special number. Books are fully narrated and include music videos and animation with activities that reinforce each concept. A mini game at the end of each book tests understanding of numbers. ( / Zoobean)

About Rebekah K.

An insomniac since 1979, Rebekah has filled her nights with books & history. Rebekah's earliest memories are of watching documentaries, reading books, and playing Candy Land late at night with her dad. Is it any wonder that she doesn't consider being a librarian and teacher a job? During her fifteen years, in college and K-12 libraries and 10 years in English, ESL, and History classrooms, she has spent her days talking about books and history, sometimes at the same time. Rebekah says, "I love pairing readers with books that are a perfect fit. I feel like I have won a war when a reluctant reader returns to tell me they hated reading; but, after reading a book I recommended, they stay up with a flashlight to read until the page is blurry."