Why Teaching Shapes to Toddlers Matters
Have you ever noticed that just about every baby and toddler toy tries to incorporate shapes? Shapes are in puzzles, on stacking cups, scattered through the pages of books, and on all the activity tables and mats. Why is that? Because knowing and understanding shapes is an important building block to many mathematical concepts. Learning shapes is a major component in helping children organize visual stimuli.
Additionally teaching shapes to toddlers helps them learn about other signs and symbols. When children learn shapes, they are learning about words that will help them form letters, draw pictures, understand street signs, and so much more.
Continue reading for simple ways you can integrate teaching about shapes every day. Like I said, shapes are all over the place, so it won’t be too hard! ( And if you are looking for other age-appropriate things to teach your little cuties, check out my post about teaching colors.)
Learning About Shapes Over Time
Understanding and learning shapes start when babies first learn to differentiate between things. Very early on, baby knows that mom and dad are different from each other, that door and window are similar but not the same.
Those little mathematicians are already comparing and contrasting, even if they don’t have the words yet to tell us about it. And if you think about it, noticing similarities and differences in objects is really the start of figuring out shapes. (Isn’t it crazy how much babies’ brains are already processing? Incredible!)
So learning shapes really does start just about right away, but it continues as they learn more and more about shapes. By about age three, kids should be able to name a few basic shapes. But the learning does not stop there because knowing the shape name is only part of it.
After learning the name, you can help your child understand why a triangle is a triangle and not a square. Check out this great article from Stanford University for more in-depth suggestions on teaching your children about the ins and outs of shapes.
How to Teach Shapes
You know that I believe play is the best way for toddlers to learn! (Check out this in-depth article from the LEGO Foundation about learning through play.) The same goes for learning shapes-play with shapes and talk about shapes as you play. That really is the best way to help your child learn!
As you go throughout your day, casually make comments about the shapes of things around you. It can be as simple as, “Oh that orange is so yummy looking! It is a circle because it’s round like a ball.” You don’t need to make a big deal about it, just make it fun and relaxed. (And please, don’t use flashcards, it’s just not a helpful strategy at this age!)
As your child continues to learn more about shapes as you name them around your home or out and about, start giving them more details. You can overtly teach them some basic things about shapes. If your child points to something that has edges and says “circle” you can gently correct them and tell them that all circles are round. Then help them find something that is a circle and talk about the differences. They probably won’t understand right away, but if you continue to talk about shapes throughout the day, they will pick up on more as they grow in understanding.
If you want more ways to help your toddler learn a wide variety of words, check out my post here that covers ways to get your child talking.
Activities for Teaching Shapes
There are tons of ways you can help your child learn shapes because everything has a shape. Teaching shapes to toddlers is most effective if you talk about shapes in context. (When I say “in context”, I just mean wherever you are. You don’t need to get flashcards or find a children’s museum that emphasizes shapes because you can teach your toddler about shapes anywhere.) Talk about the books they are reading, the toys they are playing with, and the food they are eating.
Now here is a list of several things you can do with your toddler to work on shapes.
I just love the idea of having a themed day based on a certain shape. It’s such a fun way to get your little one thinking about shapes in a playful, silly way. Basically, just incorporate your chosen shape as much as you can throughout the day. Start by getting your child dressed in an outfit that has the shape on it.
So if you choose to target circles, find something to wear with polka dots! When you eat breakfast, serve pancakes, banana slices, and orange juice (have them look at the container of OJ to find the shape of the orange). While you eat, point out how plates are circle-shaped and cups have circles on the tops and the bottoms.
Make sure you bring out all of your balls to play with, and other toys that are circular. You might have musical instruments that are circular (like this awesome set that includes a tambourine and cymbals) or maybe you have stacking cups (here are my favorites) to play with. And of course, bring out the art supplies and make different sizes of circles. You can free-hand the circles, or show your toddler how to trace around different objects to make circles. There are so many options!
Do a fun little scavenger hunt/shape-matching game around your house. One of my friends did this with her toddler and it was a real hit!
All she did was put a few big ‘ole pieces of paper on the wall with one shape at the top of each paper. (For her 2-year-old, they did circles, squares, and triangles.) Then she drew the 3 shapes on tons of Post-it notes. While her little one was sleeping, she hid the post-it notes all around the house. When her little woke up, she was instructed to look all around the house for the sticky notes. Once she found one, she could put it on the big piece of paper with the matching shape. So simple, and so fun!
Did you guys know you can make your toddler think you are a high-class chef when you cut their little PB&J sandwiches into fun shapes? (I’m so glad it doesn’t take much to impress toddlers!)
I still have great memories from my childhood of all the cool shapes my aunt would make out of our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They were just so fun! She would cut them into triangles and make boats, or butterflies, or whatever. The thing about a sandwich is, that you can cut it into any shape. If you aren’t sure about using a knife to free-hand it, try out some cookie cutters. Your child will thank me later.
Other Food Art
You guys, there are so many fun things you can do with food of different shapes. You can either take food that already has the shape you are looking for or (like in the sandwich example) make food into the shape you want. Get creative, and make it fun.
If you are having a circle day: cheerios, blueberries, tortillas, peas, cartwheel pasta, pepperoni, pancakes, Oreos, oranges, grapefruits and so many more.
You can try Chex mix, Life cereal, sandwiches, cheese slices, certain crackers, ravioli, and plenty of other options for square food choices.
Triangle day might be harder, but it’s still doable! Try out: pizza slices, watermelon slices, quesadillas, tortilla chips, and Doritos. And as I stated above, cut a sandwich into triangles!
Play “I Spy”
Play “I Spy” shape edition and name shapes that your child has to find around you. You can start basic and just say, “I spy something shaped like a triangle.” As your child gets the hang of it, you can get more specific. You could say, “I spy a big circle” or “I spy a red square”. This will add to their understanding of shapes and help grow their vocabulary. If they are really into it, let them tell you what shape to find. It might take some coaching, but they will love giving you a challenge.
Cut out several different shapes in various colors and sizes. Let your child create fun animals, trucks, or other objects of high interest by combining the shapes and making them into masks, pictures, or even abstract art. I love to use paper plates as the base for a lot of art projects with kids because they can be so many things!
You could make a kitty cat head on a plate. Cut out circles for the eyes, triangles for the nose, a square for the mouth, and long rectangular whiskers. Also, if you just look up “plate animal art” you will find an endless list of ideas.
You could also make a truck really easily. Use a big rectangle for the main part, circles for the wheels, and a square for the cab of the truck. (As I’m writing this, I realize I know very little about the vocabulary that goes along with trucks, but you get the idea!)
This is a simple one, but it’s effective. Draw with sidewalk chalk (here is the chalk we like), with toddler crayons (here are my favorites), or if you are feeling brave, paint (here’s a great option). By using different mediums and talking about shapes as you create, your toddler will start to pick up on them. As you draw try out different shapes and talk about them. It’s really simple, but effective!
Books for Teaching Shapes
I love reading books because they are such a fun way to help your child learn new skills, and that includes shapes. (If you want great tips on picking out books with your little one, check out my other article here.) Here are some great books that will spark easy conversations about shapes.
1. Play with Your Plate by Judith Rossell is such a fun interactive book. We have this one at our house, and I’m a big fan. Basically, there are four sections of the book and you can flip through the pages to choose what you want on your “plate”. One of the challenges is to find four pictures of food that are in the shape of a triangle. It’s just so cute!
2. Tangled: A Story About Shapes by Anne Miranda is so silly! A whole bunch of different shapes accidentally get caught inside of a jungle gym. And the whole story is about how all the shapes try to help get everyone unstuck. The rhyming is so impressive and the vocabulary is great.
3. TouchThinkLearn: Shapes by Xavier Deneux is very simple and straightforward. I like that the book has raised pictures so your child can touch them as you talk about them. On one side of each page is a fun picture with various scenes and objects, and on the corresponding page, there are the shapes used in the picture.
4. Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert is such a fun, unique way for you and your little one to think about shapes. The book combines several shapes to make zoo animals. Definitely worth getting! And you can read it while you do shape art to give you lots of ideas.
5. Color Farm is another book by Lois Ehlert. It uses the same fun engaging ways to talk about shapes and animals. It’s just a new set of animals, but the same idea. Lots of shapes combined in unique ways to make cute little farm animals.
6. Shape by Shape by Suse MacDonald guides you through building a dinosaur one shape at a time. The author cleverly uses tons of shapes to illustrate a dinosaur one step at a time, naming each one along the way.
7. Shapes That Roll by Karen Nagal is a beautifully illustrated book. A circle, square, and triangle host the book and show you all the different shapes. It uses great math vocabulary in a fun, rhyming way.
8. Shape Shift by Joyce Hesselberth combines shapes to make unique pictures. The two main characters play a “game” where they use a few shapes to imagine different objects they become. I love the one where a triangle on top of a semi-circle reminds them of a ballerina wearing a skirt. At the end of the story, they ask your child to join in the fun. So clever!
Toys for Teaching Shapes
There are so many great toys for teaching shapes! And as I keep mentioning, you can teach about shapes with a wide variety of toys because everything has a shape! That being said, specific toys may be extra helpful when trying to target shape learning. Here are some of my favorites!
1. Blocks: These blocks by Melissa and Doug come in four colors and have nine different shapes.
2. Shape sorters: There are different levels of difficulty in shape sorters, so choose which is best for your child. My kids loved this shape sorter as soon as they could pick things up. This shape sorter is more advanced, and better suited for toddlers on up.
3. Pattern blocks: These pattern blocks are so fun because they come with various shaped, flat blocks and pattern cards. These would be best for preschool aged or early elementary.
4. Shape puzzles: This is an easy way to help your kids interact with the shapes.
5. Cookie Cutters: This set has basic shapes and a few fun extras. Make cookies, or get creative and use it on other foods!
6. Fun-shaped bean bags: These are colorful, fun shapes in a variety of colors.
7. Shape stacker: This is another great toy by one of my favorite brands-Melissa and Doug, a simple wooden toy with a variety of shapes and colors that you stack together on pegs.
9. Baby/toddler activity table: This activity table is great for helping babies and toddlers get familiar with shapes.
10. Coloring books: There are some really fun coloring books out there that are designed to help your child learn shapes.