The Maths a One Year-Old Knows (& why this matters for later learning)

Shapes Puzzle Toy

“She's just a baby. She can't do anything.”

At first glance, my young nephew's observation of my daughter was spot on. As a baby, she could manage basic life functions and very little else.

Yet, the MOST learning in our lives happens before we turn two – learning that's not always obvious, but is highly significant to our later development.

What maths can a 1 year-old do?

For over a year now, I've observed my daughter's development – and, fascinatingly, seen the first inklings of mathematical skills coming through.

So, what maths can this 1 year-old do? She can:

  • Identify 1 item, then many items
  • Compare big and small
  • Ask for more
  • Knows up and down
  • Match shapes into corresponding holes.

Despite my teaching background, it's been surprising watching her gain these new skills – particularly because so much is completely new to her.

After all, who knows what will make sense to my daughter vs be utterly confusing?

Mysterious shape matching

For ages my daugher had literally no clue about which shape went in which hole.

Shape Sorter Toy for infants

Then one day, she figured out the circle. There's a relative easiness to the circle, since orientation doesn't matter.

After seemingly never-ending play, she worked out the square* – but seemed no closer to any of the other shapes (it didn't seem to matter what her father or I did to ‘help').

Shapes Puzzle Toy

Eventually, after a visit from her Nonna, something changed.

It was guided practice, if ever I saw it (there's a level of patience that only grand-parents have) – and overnight something clicked.

Suddenly, my daughter was confident, fast and didn't want anyone else's help.

So, what got her there?

Two conditions for learning success

Look, I'm not certain of went on cognitively that helped things to finally click. But, I do know two conditions that made a difference-

1. Slow, patient guidance

No one could predict when my daughter would acquire her shape matching skill – we certainly couldn't expect her to be successful after some arbitrary amount of practice.

Instead, we watched and stepped in to help when she struggled. And, we stepped back and gave her room to try (and try and try and try and try…) on her own, even when we knew she couldn't yet do it.

My daughter needed to familiarise herself with her tools – and just play around with them to slowly figure out what might work.

2. Motivation

This is a story about my daughter's understanding of shapes – not of numbers, dot patterns, textures, Lego, right and left, clothing, balance, etc.

She liked (no, for a while, she loved) her shape blocks. She'd excitedly bring over the tub and enforce collaborative play for up to 45 min (I kid you not).

In other words, she didn't participate by force, but had a deep desire that made her comfortable with challenge in this context – and actually just see it as play.

Are these conditions just for early learners?

Not at all…

From this experience with my daughter, I've realised how often slow, patient guidance and student-motivated choice are present at other ages.

After working with and watching many primary and secondary teachers, I've noticed often quite subtle decisions being made to incorporate these two same conditions into lessons that are then vibrant and energising.

There's more in common across learners of different ages than we sometimes realise!

Want more ideas to help your students become stronger mathematical thinkers? Check out our Circles Membership.


* Yes, this is not really a square – it has rounded corners. One of the things I'm noticing with children's shape puzzles is how they reinforce certain ideas about shapes that aren't always mathematically precise.

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