Teaching Shapes in Early Childhood

Recently a colleague of mine posed the question 'How do you teach shapes?' to me.

It's an interesting question, don't you think?

Earlier in the year I had attended a Maths workshop and the presenter made, what I thought was, an interesting point.  That we are teaching shapes to children (particularly in the early years) the wrong way.  I'll leave that thought for a moment...

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I've also been reading the book Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills Through Spatial Learning(affiliate link).  I mentioned it in an earlier post about prompting block play.  It's a very interesting text, a little clunky/academic in parts but the content is so valuable.

The author makes the point that 'shapes are generally introduced to preschool children in very rigid ways, and these stereotypes can last throughout their schooling.... (that) even though 3- and 4-year old children can recognise a triangle in a variety of orientations, the rigidity of some teachers who do not show geometric shapes from different perspectives can prevent children from recognising different shapes as they get older.  For example, children may only be exposed to a triangle with the horizontal base early in life; these children may not realise that different triangles can have different types of lines and angles and face different directions.  They only recognise the triangle shape in one orientation' (Pollman, M.J., 2010, p.48-49).

She highlights the confusion between surface shapes and three-dimensional shapes that exists in young children and states it is up to the teacher to enhance the learning of shapes by using clear wording.

Children need to be given many examples of shapes, nonexamples of shapes, and precise language related to the concept of a particular shape.  Much discussion needs to take place for children to recognise the number of sides and angles of shapes, and whether they are open or closed (Pollman, p50).

This was the point the presenter I mentioned earlier had made.  She had drawn a square on a piece of paper then asked us what shape it was.  'A square?'  'Yes.'

She then asked us what shape the A4 folder she was holding was.  'A rectangle?'  'No, it can't be a rectangle as I'm able to hold it.  It must be a 3D shape if I can pick it up and hold it but when we do this in class, that's what most of us are teaching our students' was what she said and when you think about it, it makes sense doesn't it but I know I've been guilty of doing just that.  Anything we can pick up and hold must have some depth, making it a 3D shape not 2D one.  For example, a rectangular brick might have a rectangle face that we can see when looking at it but the actual brick that we can hold is a rectangular prism, a 3D shape.

So how best to teach shapes and help build spatial awareness in the Early Years? 

Teaching shapes in early childhood.  Are we teaching them the right way?  For teaching suggestions, visit http://youclevermonkey.com/

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Blocks and Beyond provides some supporting activities such as

- investigating shapes with play dough
- working with cubes or rectangular prisms
- finding shapes in the environment
- paper folding
- playing 'Guess the shape?' game using a mix of both flat shapes and three dimensional shapes
- painting/printing shapes to find shapes within shapes
- increasing the vocabulary around shapes
- puzzles
- patterns
- sorting 3D shapes
- using picture books full of position words and phrases

From me, in schools I can also see journalling being an effective way to explore shapes. I'd pinned a link to some fantastic maths journals a while back that proved very popular and rightfully so. It's a great site posing lots of problem solving questions like - 'Can you fill a circle with squares?' and 'I have 2 shapes in my basket. Together, they have 7 sides. What shapes do I have?'
Image from Kindergarten, Kindergarten

I also think the use of mirrors with blocks can provide some valuable feedback during play.  Or another, using contact paper (sticky side up) with shape cards underneath for children to trace/build over with sticks/wool/pipe cleaners.  DIY geoboards have also proved popular in my classroom especially with bright loom bands to use.

Here's a roundup of some more ideas -

Playing with a mirror box at The Imagination Tree
Exploring symmetry and shapes at One Perfect Day
Sticker pictures at Creative Play Central
Playing with sticks at ko-ko-ko kids
3D block sort at Spielgaben
3D shape dominos at Ms Crafty Nyla
Building 2D shapes at A, Bee, C, Preschool
Matching 3D shapes to real life at Differentiation Station
Copying cube patterns at On The Shelf
Introduction to geometry for preschoolers at Kids Activities Blog
Shape matching wheel (with free printable) at Teaching Mama
Salt drawing shapes at Teach Preschool

You might find even more on my Pinterest board: 
Follow Nichole {youclevermonkey}'s board Maths Play - Measurement and Geometry on Pinterest.

Teaching shapes in early childhood.  Are we teaching them the right way?  For teaching suggestions, visit http://youclevermonkey.com/

How do you teach shapes in your classroom?  I'd love to hear your ideas.

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  1. Very thought provoking- Thanks for posting because it is definitely important to call each shape by it's accurate name! We "simplify" 3 dimensional shaped by assigning a 2 dimensional label but really it's more confusing to have to relearn the right terminology later!

    1. Thanks Clarissa. I think you're right and that's why the comment at the PD session stayed with me all this time. I was reading more of the Blocks and Beyond book again last night and the same point is made there so thought it worth posting. It does get confusing for teachers though when so many resources are incorrectly labelled too. It will be interesting to see other people's thoughts on the matter.

  2. Very insightful Nichole. I particularly value this point "children may only be exposed to a triangle with the horizontal base early in life; these children may not realize that different triangles can have different types of lines and angles and face different directions." I never really though of it this way, but it makes so much sense. We are currently working on our geo board. Very well-written article! Thank you for sharing on our page!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments Heather :)
      You can see the triangle can't you? The stock standard one we've all drawn. I have to admit though I'm still struggling with what to call a lot of the manipulatives we use. By my reading, 2D shapes can really only be seen or drawn, anything we are able to move including paper thin representations are 3D yet most of us will refer to these as squares/rectangles/triangles etc. The text talks about flat or surface shapes which probably makes more sense to more people but I'll still be having to adjust my language for a while I think. A geo-board would definitely create some useful discussion.

  3. This is a brilliant guide to helping children learn about shapes. It can be one of the most fun things to teach a child I find! It always helps to give them objects to learn from I think, otherwise they'd just be staring at a screen or a page, and that never keeps them occupied for long!


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