How familiar is this scenario? You leave your toddler alone for merely moments while you duck off to grab something from another room and when you return the entire contents of your tuppeware cupboard are strewn across the kitchen floor.

While infuriating, it’s also interesting just how fascinating your toddler finds these simple and seemingly boring objects. It’s time for some constructive and mathematical play and an opportunity for your toddler to develop some spatial and measurement skills, all with the variety of containers you already have handy.

Here are two learning opportunities that your curious toddler will find engaging.

Matching Shapes and Sizes

Here’s a picture of me at around 2 years old, more than a little bit fascinated by some very ordinary plastic containers and lids. My brother is a few months old and we’re out enjoying some winter sunshine.

It's the simple things that are both fun and educational.

It’s the simple things that are both fun and educational.

Whether my mum took this photo because we were all enjoying a peaceful moment on a gorgeous winter’s day or because she saw an educational moment with her teacher’s eye, it shows what you can do in the small moments, without any forward planning or great preparation.

Grab a few ice-cream containers, a few fast-food containers, some old storage containers and a variety of lids (and no doubt you have more lids than you do containers!), and let your toddler play and explore.

  • Play with them and ask them to find the container that fits with a particular lid.
  • Ask them to stack containers one on top of another and see how high they can stack them.
  • Explore with them how many containers they can fit inside the largest container and see if they can organise them in the most efficient manner.
  • If you have a variety of lids, you can ask your toddler to group all the circular lids together and all the rectangular lids together. Or you could ask them to line up the lids from smallest to largest.

Watch your child play and observe what they are most inclined to want to explore with these objects. You can then engage with their most natural inclinations.

Volume and Capacity

In Piaget’s development of his theory of cognitive development, the famous example of a children comparing the amount of liquid in different shaped containers is often cited. Between the ages of 2 and 7, children can observe that the same amount of liquid is in two full identical containers. If you then pour the liquid from one of those containers into a taller container, the child will typically tell you that the taller container contains more liquid, even though they just agreed that the original two containers hold the same amount of liquid.

Developing this spatial skill with water, sand, rice or whatever you have on hand, is the type of play that can be encouraged from a young age, even younger than 2 years old.

Playing in the paddling pool in summer is a great opportunity to explore filling containers and pouring them into smaller and larger containers.

Learning with water is always fun!

Learning with water is always fun!

Here I am again, enjoying summer time and playing with water.

  • You can play along with your child, asking them how many smaller containers it takes to fill one of the larger containers, counting along with them.
  • You can ask them to fill containers all the way up or half the way up and teach them concepts of halves and wholes.
  • The same sort of activities can be done in the sandpit.

Here’s one more photo of me, obviously enjoying shoveling sand into an assortment of containers!

The fun you can have in a sandpit!

The fun you can have in a sandpit!

  • You can count along with your toddler how many shovels of sand it takes to fill a bucket and you will in fact be teaching them volume using informal units.
  • You can create sand pies of various shapes and sizes, cutting them into pieces, creating layered “cakes” and making all sorts of patterns.

Each of these helps your child explore mathematical concepts through experimentation and play. There is no need to formalise these into any particular lesson, but rather just observe the fun your child is having and know that important developmental connections are being made.

In national testing and even in IQ tests, it is the ability to visualise two and three dimensional space that people find most challenging. As with all skills, some are born with a more natural aptitude than others, but everyone can learn to develop them. This sort of play is the beginning of recognising shapes from many different perspectives and transformations as well understanding relative size.

These sorts of activities are an important gateway to developing spatial understanding in our three dimensional world. Toddlers will enjoy exploring their world through tactile activities and concrete objects. The foundation for developing more complex and abstract thinking occurs from the very important experiential development in the younger years. Besides all the important development that’s taking place with these activities, you and your child will have a heap of fun together, hopefully creating a few memorable photos of your own.

We would love for you to share with us some of your own experiences of constructive play in the most common everyday circumstances. Please leave us a comment 🙂