Shapes in Preschool

Journeying into the world of mathematics has always been a little difficult for myself. Lately, however, I’ve felt a new renowned satisfaction with math. It appears that my daughter’s transition into grade 1 has ushered me into the world of math again. I can’t help but admit that it isn’t until your forced to relearn and/or teach your own children or children in class math concepts that the pieces for how everything is connected becomes so much more important –and that getting right from the beginning really matters!

This post is on geometry as my daughter likes to call it now and a collection of some beautiful invitations to play.


To begin…

Preschool children learn to recognize two-dimensional shapes and three- dimensional figures by their appearance. Shown a rectangle and asked to identify it, children might say, “It’s a rectangle, because it looks like a door.”

Early in the development of their geometric thinking, children have little understanding of geometric properties – the characteristics that define a shape or figure. They do not rationalize, for example, that the shape is a rectangle because it has four sides and four right angles.



As children develop…

Research (Clements et al., 1999) indicates that children aged 4 to 6 years begin to recognize and describe properties of shapes.

Their explanations of shapes are incomplete, but they have developed some notions about them. For example, children might explain that a shape is a square because “it has four sides”.


What we can begin doing…

Students learn about geometric properties as they view, handle, and manipulate objects (Copley, 2000). At first, students describe objects using vocabulary related to observable attributes: colour, size (e.g., big, small, long, thin), texture (e.g., smooth, rough, bumpy), movement (e.g., slide, roll), material (e.g., wood, plastic).

  • Identifying shapes and figures
  • Comparing shapes and figures
  • Classifying shapes and figurres
  • Sorting shapes and figures


    Experiencing various representations of shapes and figures

    Children need frequent experiences using a variety of learning strategies (e.g., playing games, using movement, sorting, classifying, constructing) and resources (e.g., using models of two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional figures, geoboards, pattern blocks, or tangram pieces).




Educators can help children acquire mathematical language by using correct mathematical vocabulary themselves.


  • discuss two-dimensional shapes so that children develop the concepts and language that allow them to explain why a shape belongs to a certain category (e.g., “It’s a weird-looking triangle because it’s long and thin, but it’s still a triangle because it has three sides”)
  • discuss how shapes feel. Children can handle, feel, and describe two- dimensional shapes (e.g., plastic or wooden shapes, cardboard cut-outs) that are in a bag or box without looking at the shapes;
  • providing experiences in constructing squares, rectangles, and triangles with materials (e.g., straws, toothpicks) and of discussing the properties of the shapes (e.g., a triangle has three sides)
  • provide opportunities to locate and discuss examples of two-dimensional shapes in the environment
  • provide opportunities to match shapes (e.g., matching shapes drawn from a paper bag to shapes on a display board);

Clements, D.H. (1999). Geometric and spatial thinking in young children. In J.V. Copley (Ed.), Mathematics in the early years (pp. 66–79). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Clements, D.H. (2004a). Geometric and spatial thinking in early childhood education. In D.H. Clements, J. Samara, & A. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education. (pp. 267–297). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hannibal, M.A.Z. (1999, February). Young children’s developing understanding of geometric shapes. Teaching Children Mathematics, 5(6), 353–357.


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