Developmental Milestones in Mathematics

The development of mathematical thinking skills begins at birth. It occurs in a very natural way through play, routines and loving interactions with adults.

From Birth to 12 months, the child is…

  • exploring with her senses and motor skills
  • actively developing a physical sense of where she is in relation to the world
  • developing a basic understanding of patterns, as they relate to her world
  • using basic classification skills (i.e., mom/not mom)
  • beginning to test ideas (i.e., grabbing or banging objects to see if she can get a response.)

From 12 to 24 months, the child is…

  • experiencing spatial relationships hands-on, as she is mobile!
  • learning by imitating adults and through trial and error experiments
  • understanding the concept of object permanence (the idea that people and things exist even when she can’t see them)
  • developing object classification skills – matching, using one attribute at a time. These skills will one day be used for measurement, algebra and geometry.
  • developing ordering and sequencing skills. These skills will one day develop into an understanding of numerical comparisons (more/less) and quantification (how much/ many).
  • beginning to incorporate relationships in her play to represent quantities. (i.e., setting out two plates and cups for two people). This is the beginning of one-to-one correspondence.  

From 24 to 36 months, the child can…

  • observe a peer as she engages in parallel play
  • verbally count to three
  • non-verbally and mentally understand addition and subtraction with the numbers "one" and "two"
  • visually compare, using the words “same” and “more”
  • recognize patterns in daily routines
  • show an interest in physical patterns
  • show symbolic thinking with pretend play
  • complete four- to eight-piece puzzles
  • sort, order and build with solid shapes
  • put together and take apart shapes
  • stack a set of rings on a peg by size
  • understand a daily time sequence (i.e., time to eat, nap time)
  • explore objects by filling and emptying containers (i.e., with sand or water)
  • sort and classify objects (hard/soft, big/small, heavy/light)
Sources: Geist, Eugene, Children are Born Mathematicians: Promoting the Construction of Early Mathematical Concepts in Children Under Five, Young Children, July 2001
  Geist, Eugene, Infants and Toddlers Exploring Mathematics,  Spotlight on Young Children and Math, NAEYC, 2003
  Poole, Carla, Susan Miller and Ellen Booth Church, The Path to Math, Scholastic Early Childhood Today,
  PBS Parents