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4 pretend play ideas for developing early math skills

4 pretend play ideas for developing early math skills

4 super simple pretend play set-ups to help your young child develop their early math skills.

It’s well known that young children learn so much simply through playing. It’s how they learn about the world and make sense of the things around them.

As children play, they are learning so many different skills: language skills, problem solving skills and social skills to name just a few.

Pretend play (or dramatic play as it is sometimes called) is also a great way to introduce young children to a few early math skills. After all, it’s crucial that young children get a fun and positive introduction to math when they are little.

And really, what better way for a young child to enjoy learning than through play?

And so with that in mind, here are 4 pretend play set-ups that you can easily put together at home to encourage a little math during your child’s playtime.

1. The cafe

Great for: counting skills; recognising and naming 2D shapes

Playing cafes – it’s a classic! And you can get so creative with it too (ice cream cafe, breakfast cafe… the possibilities are endless).

If you want to incorporate a bit of math into your cafe game, there are a few things you can try.

Firstly, help your child create a simple menu listing some of the items they can serve in their cafe (ideally ones that you have the corresponding play food for). Then, price each item. Make the prices simple for young children, for example $2 for a milkshake, $4 for a hamburger, $1 for fruit etc.

Grab some play coins for your child to use, or cut out circles of cardboard if you don’t have any to hand. When your customers have finished dining at the cafe, they can count out their coins to pay for the food. (You can up the prices as your preschoolers get more confident at counting!).

If you have a toy cash register, definitely dig it out for the cafe game because that in itself will encourage your child to involve money and paying (and therefore counting skills) into their game.

Want to involve shapes in your cafe game? You can sell shape cookies in your cafe. If you have blocks in different shapes you could use these. If not, cut out some small cardboard cookies in different shapes (e.g. squares, circles, rectangles, triangles to begin with). Have your children decorate them with markers and put them on a plate to serve at your pretend cafe.

Shape cookies for cafe pretend play set-up

Having shape cookies to sell in the cafe will prompt plenty of ‘shape talk’. Your child will be getting practice at identifying and naming common shapes whilst you play.

2. The library

Great for: number recognition and counting

Libraries. This is one of our favourite pretend play games of the moment.

And while you wouldn’t necessarily think of math featuring strongly in this play scenario, there are a few sneaky ways you can weave some number skills into this library set-up.

When we set up our library game, we have one person being the librarian and the other people borrowing books.

We give each person who visits their own library card with a library number on the top. Our library numbers usually have 3 or 4 digits in them like so:

library card for pretend play

When someone comes to take out some books (which we spread out around the room for people to peruse), they first have to present their library card.

The librarian then punches their card number into the library computer. And when I say library computer, I’m talking our little toy checkout machine (it plays many roles). You could simply use a calculator as an alternative.

This is great practice for number recognition and number matching. Your child is matching the number on the card to the corresponding number on the library ‘computer’.

The librarian is also responsible for deciding how many books can be borrowed each visit. As a result, our library games involve lots of counting practice as our librarian counts all the books at checkout.

(After all, you’ve got to make sure people aren’t cheekily trying to sneak too many books out of the library).

Related post: 8 super simple ways to include some math in your preschooler’s day

3. Pizza stall

Great for: simple fractions, arithmetic

Running a pretend pizza stand always makes for a fun activity. After all, who doesn’t love a good pizza?

And while selling pizzas shares many things in common with playing cafes, this one has one big difference – it involves fractions.

In my experience, many children often find the math topic of fractions daunting and confusing. A great thing you can do is to introduce your child to very simple fractions when they’re little in a fun play-based scenario.

Now, with young children, we are of course talking about really simple fractions – just start with halves and wholes for example, and then move onto quarters if your child is ready for that.

When we play pizza restaurants, we use an awesome little play pizza set (from Ikea, no less!) It’s made of soft felt and the toppings just kind of stick on without any velcro. The pizza comes already divided into 4 quarters. It’s so sweet.

Play pizza for pretend play

You could however, very easily make your own play pizza by cutting out a big circle from a cardboard box. Cut into halves or quarters and then have your children decorate the slices with toppings of their choice.

To play, have one person selling pizzas and the other person/people being the customers. In our games, customers usually order pizzas by the half or whole. This is a great activity for getting children familiar with the concept of a half and also for showing them that 2 halves make 1 whole – equivalent fractions before your very eyes!

You can add in prices and money for an extra challenge and for some counting practice. Depending on the age of your child, you could include some simple arithmetic: involve some stuffed animals who also want pizza and then help your pizza stall owner add up a few different orders. Keep the numbers low and simple.

4. Toy store

Great for: sorting, counting, simple arithmetic

And finally, the toy store! To get this game set up, we start by finding things to ‘sell’ in our own pretend toy store.

We essentially sort the contents of our toy box into different categories (there’s some math straight away!). For example, we put all the toy cars in one pile, stuffies in another and building blocks in another.

We then assign a price to each toy type. Keep the prices simple, such as $1, $2 or $3.

cars and blocks sorted into boxes

We take it in turns to have one person running the the toy store whilst other people are the customers. Our customers get to raid the dressing up box and often come to the toy store dressed in an array of interesting costumes…

Customers also get some ‘coins’ so they can buy things from the toy store. The ‘coins’ could really be anything: counting bears, round circles of card or lego bricks would do the trick. (Just make sure they’re not small enough to be a choking hazard if very young children are joining in the game).

When customers have selected their item, they take them to the shop keeper who asks them for the right number of coins. Customers count out the right number of coins and the shopkeeper bags the items.

If your child is able, you can include some simple arithmetic here. Have a customer buy two items and instead of just counting out the coins for each item individually, see if your child can add the prices together.

And my final tip for this pretend play set up? Always have lots of shopping bags ready (fabric, not plastic)! My kids usually think the bagging part is the most fun part of the entire game.

So there it is. Four simple pretend play set ups which are perfect for a bit of math. Thanks for reading!

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Pretend play ideas for developing math skills

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