Math Talk with Babies and Toddlers: How Adults Support Early Math Learning with Language

This post is authored by Cristina Sarmiento and Emily Neer as part of the 2020 pre-graduate spotlight series.

When we first think of a young child learning math, we think of their ability to add or subtract such as 1 +1 = 2. However, there are many other concepts that are related to math in addition to operations such as, spatial dimensions, measurement, and shapes. Parents and caregivers can easily introduce these concepts to their babies and toddlers in their everyday activities. These precursor math concepts help build the foundation for later math and cognitive skills, specifically categorizing, counting, and understanding cause and effect (Chen et al., 2017; Eason & Levine, 2017; Greenberg, 2013; Luckenbill, 2018)


These precursor math concepts are built and strengthened through language. To develop these math concepts, babies and toddlers need to build their vocabulary with their caregivers through language interactions (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). When building their vocabulary, they are also learning to categorize objects and count them by distinguishing objects by their characteristics (e.g., shape, color, and texture) (Chen et al., 2017). To learn about objects’ characteristics a baby will typically explore those objects with their mouths and hands, consequently acquiring sensory information about the objects. For example, a baby might put a soft blue fabric in their mouth and then hold and feel a wooden toy car in their hands. As a baby is exploring these objects, caregivers can comment on the shape, color, or texture of these objects. In doing so, caregivers are facilitating their baby’s understanding of an object’s attributes, a precursor math concept. 


The following are examples of words or phrases that can be used to support a child’s understanding of precursor math concepts:  

  • Attributes (objects’ characteristics): fuzzy, blue, round

  • Spatial Relationships: on top, below, next to, under

  • Numbers and Operations: more, less, all same, many

  • Pattern and Change:

    • “You stacked the blocks from biggest to smallest!”

    • “The bucket has a blue stripe, then a white stripe, and then another blue stripe.” 

  • Measurement: heavy, long, short, full, empty

One language technique used to facilitate children’s math learning is known as sportscasting. Sportscasting is defined as the narration and labeling of a child’s actions using math words (Luckenbill, 2018). This can be easily implemented by parents in conversations with their children. With sportscasting, parents and caregivers must consciously choose what math words they want to use when labeling their child’s actions. However, with practice and positivity, parents can engage in math talk with their babies and toddlers every day! Below are three examples of sportscasting being used in everyday contexts.

Rainy Day

Example: “Wow! You jumped in a big puddle! The water splashed up when your feet touched the puddle.” 

Explanation: With this statement, the caregiver is addressing the causal relation between the child’s jump and the splash it created to help the child understand how their action had an effect on the puddle. They also address the measurement of the puddle by saying it is big.

Playing with Blocks

Example: “You stacked the yellow block on the orange block! It is now taller than you! Let’s count how many blocks you stacked.” 

Explanation: With these three statements, the caregiver addresses attributes, spatial relations and pattern, as she narrates the ongoing pattern of the child placing a different colored block on top of another block. The caregiver also addresses measurement by comparing it to her height and incorporating numbers by counting the blocks. This helps the child understand one-to-one correspondence and cardinality because the caregiver is assigning a number to each block, going in a higher-order number sequence (e.g., 1, 2 ,3, 4). This example also highlights the principle of cardinality- the last number corresponds to the total amount of blocks in the group (National Research Council, 2009). 

Snack Time

Example: “You have two apple slices left on your plate. Now the apple slices are all gone. Would you like more apple slices?”

Explanation: The caregiver tells the child how many slices of fruit the child has left. By doing so, the caregiver uses numbers and measurement with the words “all gone” and the operation of wanting “more”. 

It is important to note that babies and toddlers will produce words at their own pace and will most likely make mistakes with certain words and concepts, like counting for example. When children make these mistakes, it is best to model the correct way to count and expand on the math language used in the learning situation instead of simply telling the child they are wrong (Dale et al., 2015). When a parent models the correct response and expands on the learning outcome, children are receiving a richer learning experience that builds not only their math understanding, but also their language skills.


Math talk, like the examples above, can be done in your day-to-day life with your young child. Math talk can happen during mealtimes, bath time, play time, and even when grocery shopping. With practice, using this math talk will come naturally and build your child’s early math knowledge!


For more math talk examples, see the information and video links below (Luckenbill, 2018):  


Chen, J. Q., Hynes-Berry, M., Abel, B., Sims, C., & Ginet, L. (2017). Nurturing mathematical thinkers from birth: The why, what, and how. Zero to Three, 37(5), 23-33.

Eason, S. H., & Levine, S. C. (2017). Math learning begins at home. Zero to Three, 37(5), 35-43.

Greenberg, J. (2012). More, all gone, empty, full: Math talk every day in every way. Young Children, 67(3), 62-64.

Luckenbill, J. (2018). Mathematizing with toddlers and coaching undergraduates: Foundations for intentional math development. Young Children, 73(3), 26-33.

National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: Paths toward excellence and equity. C.T. Cross, T.A. Woods, & H. Schweingruber (Eds.). The National Academies Press. 

Tomasello, M., & Farrar, M. J. (1986). Joint Attention and Early Language. Child Development, 57(6), 1454-1463.