6 counting games for toddlers and preschoolers

Knowing numbers can help us make sense of the physical world. They aren’t just about sums, but can assist with pattern-forming, building, sorting and much more – here are 6 fun number games to play with your child…

child counting on fingers

By Educational Psychologist Naomi Burgess

Numbers are great and wonderful fun and it can be quite sad when children are scared of numbers – so let’s go for it!


Numbers are not just about arithmetic, they are not just about sums, and they are absolutely not about getting things right or wrong.

So let’s see how a bit more knowledge of numbers can help us introduce children learn to manipulate their physical world.

The following:

  • shapes
  • directions
  • making patterns
  • sorting
  • building
  • measuring (weight, height, size)
  • designing
  • perspectives
  • number words
  • language
  • counting

–  are all part of our ‘Wonderful Number Word’. Our current curriculum models can make numbers so narrow… oops there’s a number word (narrow, the opposite of wide)!

Let’s take a look at some fun games you can play with your child at home to help them with their number knowledge…

6 number games to play with your child

1. Fingers and toes

First off, little games, or songs, like:

  • This little piggy
  • One, 2, 3 4, 5 – once I caught a fish alive
  • One-2-buckle my shoe

– are great for any time of day.

These are also important for one-to-one correspondence, which we’ll mention later.


You probably know loads of these little ditties already! And a little later in your child’s development you’ll see her take these further with songs which help them count backwards like ‘There were 10 In The Bed’ or ’10 Green Bottles’.

2. Red sock, blue sock! Colour match games

The colour words are some of the first words that children use. 

Colour, size and shape are the 3 most obvious attributes that young children start to notice, and learning to identify, categorise, and sort will help your child be ready for maths, science and reading.

So why not start with using number words around the house?

Try chatting about clothes that you might be choosing to wear. Put out 2 items of different colours and even if it sounds like you are talking to yourself, have a little chat about which colour to choose.

It’s something you probably do it with food all the time: ’Would you like the orange vegetables or the green ones first?

You might even add in shapes here: ‘the big orange circle carrots’ or the ‘little round green peas’ and now you are incorporating size, colour and shape. Just keep on doing this.


When putting socks away, remember to match up the colours (unless for convenience you get all the same colour!)

Use the word ‘pair’ then graduate to pairs (don’t forget that trousers and knickers are pairs because they have two spaces, one for each leg).

It’s great doing all this because it also gets your child to enjoy tidying, and you can start counting in pairs.

When you count in groups it is called repeated addition to start with as well as multiplication… so count out 3 pairs of socks, count each sock in each pair, and then you start a chant…..’2, 4, 6, 8,’ and just extend it bit by bit as they get older.

Before you know it, it will become second nature, and your child won’t even associate it with those dreaded times tables.

3. Shape match

Introducing your child to a shape sorter or ‘form board’ helps motor coordination and teaches them to pay visual attention to size and shape; they can do it alone or with you.

And don’t forget that all-important language in here. Remember to discuss how the shapes are the same and different.


Once they begin to get the hang of those 3D shapes, start them on simple jig-saws.

You might find that if your child takes to it easily they might want to turn the pieces over and tessellate them without the picture.

The maths concepts in here are fundamental, and tessellation is the basis of mosaics too: just look at the complexity of the ubiquitous British tiled path!


4. Number trains / Spot the number

Number trains are a good way of introducing number recognition and counting.

LEGO Duplo have produced a really colourful one, that can be built and rebuilt (take a look at the LEGO Duplo Number Train here). It also comes with 2 child figures and a cat toy for added fun when learning numbers.


There are so many games you can play with this train to help your child learn to count.

A couple of examples are:

  • Get your toddler to stack the correct number of bricks on top of each number brick – ie, 1 brick on top of the ‘1’ brick, 2 bricks on top of the ‘2’ brick, 3 bricks on top of the ‘3’ brick etc.
  • Take each number brick and get your child to put the correct number of the same object of their choice next to each number brick – eg, 1 pencil next to the ‘1’ brick, 2 teddies next to the ‘2’ brick, 3 pebbles next to the ‘3 ‘brick etc.

And to add to number recognition why not use foam numbers to stick on the tiles when your child is in the bath?

Numbers are great, numbers are fun, and just everywhere all the time, on buses, on front doors, in post codes.

So just playing Spot the Number whenever you are out will offer your child so much, too – and don’t forget a lovely set of magnetic numbers for your fridge!

5. Building blocks

Building with blocks, or shapes, simple or complex is also fundamental. It develops motor control, it develops language – you can build ‘high’, you can build ‘long’, making horizontal patterns.

Add in the language of counting, and asking them what they are making.

Now consider making the task more interesting, using alternate colours and making even more complex patterns.

See if they can do their own or copy yours. As they get older they can create their own landscapes with building blocks and kits, making towns and villages.


They can thread buttons, and eventually get into trying something like French knitting and making long sausages.

Children also like to make more mechanical constructions, using spanners and screwdrivers to make trucks with moveable wheels. There are some brilliant ones available.

6. Jacks

Jacks are back. Remember the metal stars with a small rubber ball? This game, played with 10 jacks, starting with throwing up the ball and picking up one star, letting the ball bounce and catching it, continuing until you have all 10 in your hand.

Then you increase the number you pick up at one time ‘twosies, threesies, foursies’, until you have to collect 10 in one scoop.


So pleased this game is back! It’s great for numbers and it is fantastic for dexterity – which is great for writing. iPads and tablets can be really useful, but they don’t develop full dexterity!

A note about games that develop one-to-one correspondence

One-to-one correspondence is important for accurate counting. It means being able to match one object to one other object.

When children count they often miss a cube or a block, or even when they count a row of children.

You can practise ‘one to one correspondence‘ in all sorts of different contexts.

So count up 1 at a time on a set of blocks, count as you climb up steps and then remember to ask how many you have climbed.

Laying the table is great, finding the right number of forks and spoons. It might seem obvious to you that 4 people will need 4 forks, but I bet if you ask your 3-year-old that question, they might have to think hard.

Use paving stones to count from your gate to a friend’s gate, put the numbers on the stones in chalk.

When they are a bit older they can play hopscotch.

Another game you can try is throwing a dice and making the right number of steps on a tiled floor. Make it harder by using 2. Introduce a concept of steps backwards and forwards to add to the complexity.

Author Educational Psychologist Naomi Burgess is a Registered Practitioner with the Health Professions Council and a Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society

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Pics: Getty

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