How To Teach 3D Shape in the Early Years

Hands-on ideas and printables for teaching young children 3D shapes.

Years ago I wrote about the most effective ways to teach shapes and build spatial awareness in the Early Years at school. 

Much of what I wrote then is still true today in schools. Young children need repeated hands-on play with different 3D objects to understand them and they need clear, accurate information from their teachers to avoid the confusion between surface or two dimensional shapes and three-dimensional shapes that exists in many young children. 

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Printable 3D Shape Playdough Mats | you clever monkey
The book Blocks and Beyond - Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills Through Spatial Learning is a valuable resource for any teacher working in Early Childhood.

It provides many ideas for activities that can help support a young child's growing understanding of shape.

At the start of teaching 3D objects, we always go through the different language used to describe 3D objects vs 2D shape. Edges vs sides, corners vs vertices. We introduce our word wall cards and shape posters at the same time.

This simple paper foldable from Hooty's Homeroom is a good hands-on finish to your first lesson. From a single piece of paper, children can may a basic 3D object which can be labelled with the correct terms.

The Australian Curriculum tells us students in their first year at school should be able to 'sort, describe and name familiar two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional objects in the environment.'

By comparison, Year 1 students should be able to 'recognise and classify familiar two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional objects using obvious features' and Year 2 students should be able to 'describe and draw two-dimensional shapes, with and without digital technologies and describe the features of three-dimensional objects'.

All of which is not dissimilar to the US Common Core standards for Kindergarten and beyond.


2D Shape Challenge Cards | you clever monkey


Children love to put what they know into action and as Early Years teachers, we know that's how they learn best. 

Here are some of our favourite ways to learn about 3D objects -

1. Place different 3D objects into a bag or sensory tub and have your children describe them by feel.

2. Experiment to see how the different objects move. Work in small groups or pairs to build some simple ramps and move the objects down the ramp before sorting them.

Exploring 3D Shapes In Class | you clever monkey

3. Sort a collection of 2D and 3D shapes into two groups.

4. Playdough to Plato has these fabulous STEM 3D Shape Cards which help children visualise the shape they are making. 

You can use playdough + toothpicks or plasticine or frozen peas work in place of playdough. For older children, small pieces of pipe cleaners and straws allow them to build larger, sturdier 3D objects.

5. Use these printable mats in a lesson to intentionally teach the different properties of 3D shape or add them to your play dough table as a math centre invitation. 

You can grab these 3D playdough mats from HERE.

Printable 3D Shape Playdough Mats | you clever monkey

6. Build the different shapes from Magnatiles. These blocks are guaranteed to engage young children and they are perfect for making 3D objects.

6. Use paper nets to create different 3D objects. Better for older children who have learnt to fold more precisely.

7. Add some 3D objects to your kinetic sand and invite your students to play. You can find the 3D objects we used here. By stamping the shape into the sand, children can see what 2D shape the different faces might be too.
3D Shapes and Kinetic Sand | you clever monkey

8. Go on a 3D shape hunt in the environment. Real world examples can help children understand some math concepts more easily.

9. Play a game of 'Guess Who?' with shapes. The children can only ask yes/no questions of each other to work out the shape.

10. Play games using 2D shapes and 3D objects. My class love their BINGO so I knew this BINGO game with both 2D and 3D would be a hit! You can find the BINGO game here.

2D Shape + 3D Object Printable BINGO game | you clever monkey

11. Create some sculptures from recycled materials then count how many different 3D shapes have been used.

12. Using some solid 3D objects, hide them in sensory bin or bag and have children describe what they can feel before guessing what 3D object it is.

Providing a print rich environment for children to learn the terms specific to maths also helps young children master the language needed to describe and label the different shapes. You can find our 3D shape posters and word wall cards HERE.

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