3 Preschool Games to Increase Math Literacy


My husband is essentially an applied mathematician and I was a physics teacher. We often leave each other notes around the house in the form of graphs or equations. True love, people.

This is the current view in my kitchen…finding the minimum angle for a ladder so that it doesn’t slip. And no, this isn’t staged. It’s real life around here.

Minimum angle of a ladderSo you can imagine that math is important at our house.

I’m not talking about math facts (like 5+7 or the cube root of 27 or the integral of x²), though we love those, too. No, I’m talking about math literacy – the ability to utilize math to problem-solve and, furthermore, to understand numbers instead of just performing a mental algorithm.

Teaching physics to juniors and seniors in high school gave me first-hand experiences with droves of students in high-level math classes that don’t actually understand math.

Students that can perform the algorithm to solve the problem but don’t actually understand why that solves the problem.

Consider this simple example: 27+7. The answer is 34. How did you get the answer? You probably added 7+7 to get the 4, then carried the 1. Add the carried 1 to 2 to get 3. 34. You correctly completed the algorithm. But do you know why you carried the 1?

Another solution from an early elementary schooler: 27 needs 3 more to get to 30. 7 is 3+4. So 7 gives 3 to 27 to make 30, or 3 sets of ten, and has 4 left over, 4 ones. So that is 34.

Both get the right answer, but the second has an understanding of the actual numbers and the way that ones and tens are related. This can be extrapolated to 100s, 1000s, etc.

Developing math literacy requires more than drills and practice.

It needs opportunities to practice math concepts in real ways. It also doesn’t have to wait until elementary school to begin.

Just as you introduce your preschooler to letters and reading, you should also introduce them to numbers and math.

But this doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be formal practice and workbooks. It should be naturally worked into the dialogue and activities of your home. My mom was an elementary school teacher, so growing up no game was just a game…we were always secretly learning.

Here are 3 games to increase math literacy with your preschooler:

1. Playing Cards

Cards are one of the lowest-entry ways to practice math both in cost and necessary ability. The suits show classifications and the numbers show ranking. There are so many ways to utilize them. Added bonus: they are easy to fit in your purse if you are stuck waiting somewhere.


Starting around 2 years, have your child sort the deck of cards by color. One red stack and one black stack. Sorting and classifying are important math skills.
Once sorting by color is easy, try sorting by suit. Then sorting by number. Then put the cards in numerical order.

This trains young brain to classify things into different categories.


As an adult, I hate the card game war. The results are pure chance and require no skill…which makes it a perfect preschool game! Once my kids were 3 and 5, they could play a game between the two of them with no parental involvement other than shuffling.

War requires the players to compare and rank the numbers on the cards. They must consider: which is higher: 8 or 4?

Remove the face cards at first and then add them back in for a challenge. The added piece of J=11, Q=12, … introduces the concept that things that aren’t numbers can still have a numerical value (….like that whole year of Algebra I).

Crazy 8s/Uno

Crazy 8s is another low-entry game with a big pay-off. The hardest part can be holding all the cards in little hands in which case you can play with “open hands” just sitting face up on the table.

In playing Crazy 8s, the child not only has to be able to mentally group cards into suits and numbers but also has to have fluidity in the groupings…am I going to play it as a 6 or a diamond?


We play without wagering which, I know, is kind of lame. But Twenty-One is a quick way to practice some adding and also introduce the idea of probability with “how likely is your next card to put you over 21?”

Gin Rummy

To me, this is the ultimate card game. My husband and I play together and around age 5 my son started playing. There are so many skills in groupings here including considering what your opponent has picked-up and discarded.

2. Mastermind, Jr.

Nothing like some cryptography to spice up the afternoon.

In Mastermind, Jr., a simplified version of Mastermind, one player makes a code of three colors and the other tries to break it. Each turn the code-maker tells the codebreaker how many colors they have correct and how many they have in the correct place. The codebreaker then uses this information to formulate a new code.

This game encourages one of the most important aspects of math and critical thinking, problem-solving perseverance.

When you don’t solve it the first time, you try again improving your approach with what you learned from your failed attempt.

3. Dominoes

Dominoes is my favorite math game for early learners, hands-down. It does require the ability to do simple addition, so it is best suited for late preschool or early elementary school.

Dominoes build math literacy

In this version of dominoes, you can only score points when the end dominoes add up to a multiple of five. [insert squeal of delight]

Every turn practices adding numbers together and assessing if they are a multiple of five. I suggest only using up to double-six dominoes at this age.

Furthermore, as they refine their strategy beyond just finding a domino to play towards scoring points, your child will begin to reason: It is 12 now. To get to 15, I need 3 more, but when I play here it takes away 2, so I really need 5 more. <— There was so much math in that! And reasoning! And he did it himself!

Then at the end of the hand, there is rounding. 

Even if you don’t raise the next applied mathematician or physicist, mathematical literacy and problem-solving are important. As the internet makes information more accessible, the ability to process information and data becomes more important.

So play some math games and build a foundation for long-term success.