ALA Annual 2024

Early Numeracy in the Children’s Library

Ten flannel cats surround the book entitled Stack the Cats
Photo credit: T. Prendergast

Math is all around us and is inextricably woven into all of the physical and social worlds we inhabit. Just like literacy, numeracy actually begins at birth. Early numeracy refers to the development of all the mathematical reasoning that children learn during their early childhood years, before formal schooling begins. Early numeracy can be conceptualized into these three main concept areas:

  • Number sense 
  • Shapes, sizes, spatial awareness
  • Patterns, sets, sorting and measuring

Similar to early literacy skills, these early numeracy concept areas often overlap and reinforce each other. Let’s take a closer look at each one: 

We see number sense  in early childhood when young children start to understand that numbers refer to specific amounts. This might begin with watching their caregiver’s fingers during songs like 5 green and speckled frogs. Children’s number sense becomes more sophisticated and eventually leads to simple operations like the ability to add and subtract small amounts. Pausing your storytime to ask the children “how many frogs still need to jump into the pool?” will encourage their number sense in a very fun way. 

Understanding the features of different objects’ shapes and sizes helps to build children’s overall spatial awareness and eventually supports the growth of geometric thinking. Block building play, especially with block sets that contain various shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles etc.) supports children’s understanding of shapes and spatial awareness. Hands-on experimentation with blocks can help children learn how shapes fit together, how they can be taken apart, rotated, flipped, and how to problem-solve in 3 dimensions. 

When you start looking, you will see opportunities for young children to learn about patterns, sets, sorting, and measuring everywhere. Patterns are apparent in children’s lives from day one. For example, daily routines are essentially patterns that children learn to expect to unfold in fairly predictable ways. While the sun rises and sets each day, getting dressed and getting fed happen each day, too. Patterning soon extends to noticing visual patterns like stripes of different colours on their clothing, and the parts that make up cumulative stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Everyday objects like blocks, balls, cars, shoes, etc. offer endless opportunities for sorting objects and children become more and more sophisticated in their abilities to categorize things differently as they grow. For example, rocks, leaves, sticks, keys, and coins can all be sorted into sets by their sizes, colours, shapes, textures, and weights. Homes are full of objects just waiting to be sorted by little hands and kids love sorting stuff!  

Photo credit: T. Prendergast

Measurement concepts begin with the ability to compare the sizes of different things. Before they learn standard measurements like inches or centimetres, children can have fun using their own hands to measure how big something is compared to something else. For example, a toy kitten might be only 2 hand-lengths high while a toy dog might be 10 hand-lengths high. They will love this kind of hands-on math play. 

Early Numeracy in Picture Books

Not surprisingly, the books in our libraries offer superb opportunities to play with math and support early numeracy. While counting books are great, you can find rich, specific mathematical concepts in many picture books. I would like to introduce you to three of my favourite early numeracy picture books.

Mouse count written and illustrated by Ellen Stoll Walsh

10 little mice need to work out how to escape the confines of a jar before the snake who captured them wakes up for his mousy meal! You can easily extend this story with a real jar and toys of different sizes. This book supports the early numeracy skills of counting and estimating.

Stack the cats written and illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

Ten cute cats stack themselves in different ways to figure out the best ways to sleep and play. I found it very easy to make flannel version and I can assure you that your storytime kids will enjoy stacking, counting, adding, and subtracting the cats. This book supports the early numeracy skills of counting, adding, and subtracting.

Up to my knees written and illustrated by Grace Lin

In this delightful introduction to relative size and measurement, a small child measures a plant by comparing its changing height with her own toes, knees, & shoulders. Eventually the plant, revealed to be a sunflower, towers over her. Adorable! This book supports the early numeracy skill of measuring.

What YOU can do!

Point out these kinds of math-rich books at storytime and – if possible – demonstrate extension activities with toys, puppets, flannel pieces or other objects and materials, depending on the book. Modelling simple, fun math activities like sorting and measuring stuff may encourage caregivers to try new things at home. 

Early numeracy learning opportunities are supported by many of same practices that encourage early literacy such as reading, playing, and talking. Since you already talk about the benefits of these practices, you can easily include some early numeracy tips wherever they fit into your conversations with grown-ups. 

If you’re attending ALA Annual 2024 in San Diego, we’ll be discussing early numeracy at the Preschool Services Discussion that will take place on Sunday, June 30th 2024 at 10:30am-12:00pm at the Marriott Marquis, Grand Ballroom, Section 5. I hope to see you there! 

Additional Resources

Balance in storytime

Early Numeracy (PPT presentation by Laurie Danahy, Oregan Head Start)

Enhancing Storytime to Build Children’s Math Skills (Mother Goose on the Loose Webinar)

Erikson Institute Early Math Collaborative

Family Math

Finding the Math in Children’s Storytimes  

Incorporating Math Literacy into Storytime and Other Programs

Integrating Technology into Public Library Programs with Bedtime Math

Symmetry in Storytime

What are your favourite early numeracy resources, activities, and books? Please add them in the comments! 

This post intends to address the following Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Libraries:

I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming skills, and  IV. Collection Knowledge and Management


A brown haired woman is smiling and looking straight ahead
Blogger Tess Prendergast

Tess Prendergast worked as a children’s librarian for 23 years. She has a PhD in early literacy education and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She currently facilitates the ALSC Preschool Discussion group and has served on both the Geisel (2023) and Caldecott (2016) committees.

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