Get Real with Authentic Math and Science Skills in Everyday Activities

Math and science learning happens naturally – especially when we take a minute to notice it.

As a child care provider, it’s very easy to get busy moving from one activity to the next. You’re busy making snacks, changing diapers, negotiating disputes, answering a million and two questions from the little learners, providing stimulating learning environments and activities, ensuring that the children are safe and supervised at all times supervised at all times, etc. In that busy classroom bustle, we can miss the countless opportunities for some “back to the basics” authentic learning.

Authentic learning opportunities are just those learning-by-doing activities that don’t need any fancy equipment from one of the countless early childhood catalogs. These opportunities can happen at times of transition between one activity to another or at meal or snack times. You can also mix them into other activities. Families can get involved when you share suggestions for things parents can do at home with their children. Because they are so simple and “back to basics,” we can sometimes forget to incorporate them, but these opportunities are everywhere!

Math Is More Than Numbers!

In preschool, many folks tend to focus a lot on making sure that children know their numbers. And that’s great, but we can forget that there are many other math and science concepts and vocabulary that they need to know as they enter kindergarten. Helping children learn and identify things that are the tallest, shortest, smallest, biggest, most, least, closest, farthest, etc. engages them in their environment, teaches them about making comparisons (a science skill) and gets their minds working!

Taking Time to Talk Math & Science During Transitions

Even handwashing gives children a chance to explore math and science terms. “Did you wash the tops and bottoms of your hand? Is the water hot or cold?”

Transitions give us great chances to add math and science words into our daily activities. Check out the ideas below to boost learning — and child focus — during those moments!

  • At lunch or snack: Ask children to identify the biggest (or smallest) piece of fruit on their plate, have children compare the portions of the food that they have been given. Do they have more vegetables or more bread? Half way through the meal stop and see who has the least on their plate, who has the most?
  • When you are outside or on a walk: Ask the children to find the tallest tree or the highest roof.
  • When lining up to come inside: Ask the children to name who is the closest to the door? Can they name who is the farthest from the door?
  • When working with infants and toddlers: Make the comparisons for them. Talk to them while you are feeding them. Tell them when you are giving them a smaller bite of food, or point out the tallest bush on the playground
  • Working one-on-one with a preschool child: Check to see if they are able to understand these concepts. Have the child be the reference point. “Which toy is closest to you?” “Which if your friends is taller, Maria or Jake?”
Little Moments That Lead to Big Math & Science Skills — All In Order!

Talking about the order of things and putting things in order is another easy activity. You can chat about ordering tasks or things during transition times, as well as routine caregiving tasks like feeding and diapering activities. Again, this builds on math skills, “the first thing we do is…the second thing we do is…and the third thing we do is…” It also helps children learn that things have an order to them that helps with executive functioning – the skills that help them manage life today and well into the future.

Moments when talking about sorting, arranging and putting things in order:

  • Line up – by size: Have the children line up to go outside or to wait in a line by shortest to tallest, or tallest to shortest – you can take pictures of this to help the children correct the arrangement if they are off
  • At clean up time: Arrange blocks or other toys from biggest to smallest
  • With Infants and toddlers during diaper changing or other caregiving tasks: Tell them what you are doing while you are doing it using “first,” “second,” and “third” language, “First, I am going to take off your dirty diaper and throw it away, the second thing I am going to do is…”
  • Check in on their sense of daily order: Suggest doing something out of order and see if the preschool children “catch it” – for example on a hot summer day tell them you are going to go and play in the sprinkler and then put on their bathing suits after they are finished in the sprinkler. The children will love correcting you, and it reinforces why things have to be in the right order.
Small (Math and Science) Activities Lead to Big Brain Boosts

Each of these activities are little additions that you can sneak in during those times that we don’t typically think of as formal instructional opportunities. These activities don’t require any additional materials other than your typical early care and education environment, and are simple, yet engaging. Just think of all the extra learning that can happen when you take advantage of all these extra opportunities!


As the Fellow of Paths to QUALITY™ Enhancement Initiatives, Emily Rouge researches and studies early childhood quality improvement systems in Indiana and nationally. In this position, Emily provides research and rationale for strengthening Indiana’s quality initiatives and other early care and education policy issues. Emily started her career as a preschool and kindergarten teacher. She went on to pursue further education in human development and family studies. These perspectives allow Emily to understand how early care and education systems, the regulatory climate, families, and communities interact  — and how those interactions impact the development of young children. Emily enjoys working with the Partnerships for Early Learners team because it gives her a platform for translating research and data into meaningful information and actionable recommendations, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that young children in Indiana have a solid foundation for growth and development.