Teaching shapes in preschool and daycare is simple, yet fun, because geometry applies in so many real-life situations – especially artistic ones. Once your little tots learn the names of shapes, and how to recognize them, they’ll be able to pick up other mathematical concepts easily. For example, they’ll see that shapes can grow, be sorted, or be used to make objects, when added together. The trick is to not overwhelm them with too much, too soon. Instead, let the concept of shapes build upon previous knowledge.
In this article, we’ll give you ideas on how to teach shapes in early childhood education classrooms, bit by bit.
Use shape cut outs to explain the basic shapes
This is the most basic way to start teaching shapes – but don’t discredit its effectiveness! Whether you use laminated, store-bought shapes, wood cut outs or just cut them out of construction paper, you can introduce toddlers and preschoolers to shapes and their names with simple, 2D cut outs. Start with just a few. For example, circle, triangle and square.
When you show children the shape cut outs, try to talk about them, to explain their differences. For example, a triangle has three points. Touch each point and count, “one, two three.” And do the same with square. With the circle, explain that there are no points, because it is “round.”
You can also write the names of the shapes on the pieces of paper themselves.
This is just to introduce children to the idea that shapes exist. After they are accustomed to a few shapes, you can move on to more complex ones, such as rectangle, oval, pentagon, and so on.
Play “I spy” to spot shapes being used in a child’s environment
The next way to introduce shapes is to explain their meaning in everyday life. Show children how to recognize shapes that are used in their environment. Make this fun with a simple game of “I spy.” Ask the children if they can see the “circle” that you see, or the “square” and so on, in the room. The shapes can be 2D or 3D, but at this point, you can stick to their 2D names. For example, a cylinder tube can be a “circle” for now.
This activity will help children understand more than the language or names of shapes. It will help them realize that shapes are important and applicable. That is, they can be used.
Practice tracing shapes and cutting them out
Being able to ‘make’ with our hands is an important part of learning and retention. It’s one thing to sit in a circle and listen to a teacher explain the names of shapes. But it’s another thing to create them yourself, and see them in action.
The simplest way to do create these geometry manipulatives is by tracing on paper. Have a solid shape (made of wood, thicker paper, cardboard, plastic, etc.), place it on a sheet of paper, and show children how to use a pen or pencil crayon to draw the shape outline, using the harder object as a guide.
This is the easiest way to learn how to draw and make shapes. When children are more advanced, and learn how to control their hand grip on pencils and crayons, they can practice drawing these shapes without stencils or guides.
Bake cookies with shape cutters and eat them for fun!
Here’s another fun manipulative: bake shape cookies! Instead of asking children to draw the shapes, this time they can ‘cut’ them out with cookie cutters. We may think of cookies as round (as they usually are in books). Or, we may know about common holiday sugar cookies that come in shapes, like Christmas trees, gingerbread men, and so on. But what about plain ol’ shapes?
Try making square cookies, oval cookies, and so on with your preschool classroom. After, they can eat off the corners and see what shapes they can name!
Use shape sorting boxes to instill the idea of shapes and sizes
A classic way to teach shapes is with shape sorting boxes. You can find these toys in almost any toy department at a store. They don’t need to be fancy or complex (some come with singing tunes and lights). The point here is to make a game of matching shapes and sizes. When a child can realize that a ‘square’ goes in the square-shaped hole, they are processing the information about that shape, and how it ‘fits’ in a specific way.
Same goes for ‘star,’ ‘circle’ and so on. Try to say the shape names out loud, and do a ‘hooray!’ to give the child a ‘reward cue’ when they get it right.
Build with multi-shaped blocks, to learn how shapes can be manipulated
Whether with wooden block sets, legos, or something a little more modern, like Magformers, this is an absolute classic. Teach the tots to build towers, castles, spaceships and more, using the basic concept of connecting shapes together.
Try to find block sets or connecting shapes that are varied. Some should be square, some triangular, some cylindrical and so on. While teaching shapes should start with just a few basic ones, it’s ok to give children blocks of any shape, to let their imaginations run wild. Exposure to shapes is key, even before being able to name them.
Note: some Magformer knock-offs can be dangerous if they’re easily broken. The magnet pieces can be swallowed, and cause major issues in the intestinal tract. This has happened before, so please be careful. The official Magformers brand also has a safety statement on their website about this, here.
Create shapes with sticks and marshmallows, or clay
Another way to create shapes in artistic form, is to use toothpicks and marshmallows, or clay. This is a relatively easy way to ensure that a ‘square’ actually becomes a square, because the child will be ‘forced’ to use sticks of the same size. What they will learn in this instance is how the corners can connect the ‘lines’ (the edges of the shape). This then forms a square, triangle and so on.
After they learn the basics, they can see what happens when they connect toothpick-marshmallow shapes to make longer shapes, or 3D shapes!
And of course, as a treat, they can eat their marshmallows afterwards (washing hands, first of course!)
To conclude: shapes can be part of interdisciplinary learning in preschool classrooms
As we’ve seen above, learning about shapes can take many forms (get it?). You may also have noticed that each activity explained above intersects with other learning tools. For example, learning about shapes by tracing them on paper helps children with fine motor skills development. It can also teach them about colour, based on the pencil crayon they pick (assuming you are also pointing out and teaching them about colours). Math and counting can also be taught in tandem with shapes, since the children can learn to count corners. And of course, vocabulary is introduced, since children learn their geometric lexicon.
The list can go on (think of all the science they can learn about baking shape cookies!). But you get the idea, and we hope your preschool classroom will too!