Ideas For Learning Math through Play in Special Ed Early Childhood Classrooms

Teaching Children to Learn Math through Play

Children are naturally surrounded with early math concepts in their play. They give each playmate a cookie, share a toy, and count blocks. Children with special needs may need more direct teaching in this area, but they can also learn math skills through play experiences. The concepts they need to learn can be directly taught and supported in center activities or even free play situations if the teacher provides dialogue and specific direction. Math instruction in the early childhood setting must involve concrete ideas, and be naturally suited to the child’s play. It should also be integrated across the curriculum, not isolated in a "math" lesson. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some ideas for providing quality math support, and fun, interesting experiences for young children with special needs.

Matching Skills:

Matching skills according to physical attributes can be taught as part of a dramatic play activity. Place several pairs of clothing items in a dress up chest, such as mittens, socks, gloves, shoes. Encourage the child to locate the matching item when interest is shown towards one of the items that has a match. The child will put on the pair, and the teacher should show the child that they are wearing a matching pair. Children with special needs can learn this skill alongside typically developing students with extra support, and more repetition when needed.


There are a variety of opportunities to teach sorting skills in the early childhood setting. Toys can be sorted at clean-up time. Before an art activity, a child could help the teacher sort crayons by color that are mixed together in a bin. Cars in a play area can be sorted by color or size. Teachers can facilitate these sorting activities in a relaxed, non threatening way with casual interactions during play. These types of activities should be repeated with different objects many times to facilitate generalization of the skill.

Learning Shapes:

Children with special needs learn shapes over an extended period of time. Many different activities can be used to teach shapes throughout the preschool setting. Matching shapes, tracing shapes, and lacing cards of different shapes could be integrated into learning centers. Finding shapes in the toys children play with or the foods kids eat are other ways to teach shapes. The cookie on the lunch tray is a circle. Talk about the cookie, and bring up the fact that it looks like a certain shape, a circle. The block a child is playing with could be picked up and the child could be shown that the block looks like a square. Laminated shapes of different colors and sizes make a great open-ended shape activity that can be used at many student levels. Place small, medium, and large circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and oval shapes in a small basket. You could even have several colors of each shape. The shapes can be explored during center time. The teacher will use dialogue to teach shape concepts that are appropriate for the individual child’s level of performance. Shapes can be identified, sorted by size, shape, and/or color.


A basic understanding of measurement begins in early childhood, although true understanding usually comes later, in early elementary grades. A great way to teach measurement is to add measuring spoons and cups to sand, water, or bean tables. If you don’t have any of these, a large plastic container filled with beans can be pulled out as a center activity and then put away when finished. Just allow children to explore measuring out beans or sand and pouring into a bowl. State the amount as the child plays and encourage understanding.

Classroom cooking activities are also opportunities to teach measuring skills. Let children take turns measuring out specific ingredients, and talk about the importance of measuring in order to obtain desirable results.

Make a "ruler" for children to use as a center activity. Using poster board, cut out ruler size shapes. Draw colored circles on the "rulers". Measure small items with them. Ask the child to measure the item by stating the number of circles the item is measured to be.