Supporting children to identify colour, size and shape through play gives them the foundation for maths learning.

Colour, size and shape are the 3 most obvious attributes that young children start to notice, and are able to identify and use to categorise objects. They are the basis of mathematics, reading and science. Sorting by colour and shape prepares children for their future learning.

Colour words are some of the earliest words that children learn. Colour is used to identify objects around the house, sort clothes and work out who they belong to, identify toys, play with blocks, use crayons and many other activities.

Shape sorting is a common toddler activity, including posting boxes and puzzles that emphasise matching by shape. They are testing the concepts of same and different.

Size is important too. The world is divided into big and little, and short, long and middle-sized.


An important role for whānau is to provide plenty of opportunities for their tamaiti to look for colours, shapes and sizes, and to talk to them, helping them learn the names of colours, shapes and sizes.

Sorting is a simple activity that uses basic maths concepts. It’s about being able to observe things, comparing the similarities and differences, and classifying them. You might be sorting things into groups of the same colours, or shapes or sizes — all the red toys, all the square blocks, or all the little spoons. The world is full of things that can be sorted one way or another. The more practice the tamaiti has, the more familiar they’ll be with these basic maths ideas.

The most important thing children can be allowed to do to encourage early maths development is play. Toddlers need lots of different containers for play — large, small, round, square, tall and short — some that nest neatly and some with lids. They need a separate set they can fill and empty when they take a bath. Containers may not seem like toys to us, but in a toddler’s hands these toys can teach maths concepts.

Sometimes the simplest toys are the best for learning. The more things toddlers can do with a toy, the better. Blocks of all different sorts and sizes are great examples of the simplest toys that teach young children many things.

There are lots of children’s books that highlight colours, shapes and sizes. A browse through the young children’s section of the local library will produce lots of choice.

Use the following activities with whānau:

  • Blocks and building
  • Exploring together
  • Finger plays
  • Maths everywhere

More play ideas and activities