Multiplication: Learning your times tables

Most of us will remember the days of practising our times tables over and over again until they came without a  second thought. As much as children often detest learning this skill it is nonetheless a very important mathematical foundation that will underlay so many of the more difficult maths concepts later on. If these simple multiplication equations are not mastered it will slow progress and make maths just that little bit harder.

With his in mind, here are some activities to drill the times tables that make it just a little bit more fun and will be especially helpful to those kinesthetic learners who need the hands-on experience to really lock these facts into their memories. They can be used as workjobs, shoebox tasks, Montessori style tray activities, work stations or simply as part of your every day maths programme.

This is an egg holding tray from my refrigerator with a cheap set of plastic ping-pong balls from the $2 shop. The multiplication problem is written on each ball with the answers in each circle on a piece of card taped to the back. The balls are simply matched up to the correct answer. (Children usually have no problem with 0, 1 or 10 times any number, so if there are not enough spaces I leave these equations out of the set.)

A paper plate has the answers written around the edge with multiplication problems slid into the end of plastic pegs. Children work out the sum and slide the peg on to the correct place.

The 7 times table is written onto wooden pegs with the answers on coloured contact stuck around the edge of a plastic container. Pegs are stored in the container when the activity is complete.

Small slots are cut into the top of each egg carton segment with the answers to the 8 times table written on each. Fat shaped popsticks (paddle-pops) have the sums written on each and are poked into the corresponding hole. The last segment has a larger hole to place al the sticks when the activity is complete.

Popsticks with answers are matched to the 9 times table written on an icecream container lid.

An empty container (lunchbox etc.) plus some pattipans and card circles are all that is needed for this activity. The patti-pans have the answers and the card circles have the 4 times table written on them.

Ziploc activity bags for toddlers and preschoolers

Noodle threading is always fun, just remember to tie one on the end to stop all the others sliding off while children are threading. When they have had enough of threading they can pretend to cook the noodles for dinner.

Ziploc activity bags are simply self-contained activities for toddlers, preschoolers and young children that include everything necessary for the child to complete the activity. Thus named because they are often stored in Ziploc plastic bags that are readily available from the supermarket. These bags have a plastic zip-style closing system that is easy for young children to manipulate, however we haven’t found them to be very long-lasting. Shoe boxes, trays or other containers are of course equally suitable but not so easily transported. Press-loc or snap-loc plastic bags are not as good because young children are not able to re-seal them independently, but if you don’t mind a few seconds to close each bag when they are done, they seem to last longer.

The kind of activity you can include is endless and their uses wide and varied. Some Mothers save them for school time activities while the older children require their attention. Others use them to take on holidays, while travelling in the car or when visiting with friends. They are useful for meals out in a restaurant, at home for mat time, blanket time, highchair time or table time activities. Whenever you need to keep a young child happily occupied these can be whipped out for hours of entertainment.

So what do you put in them? Almost anything really. Ideally they wouldn’t contain anything too messy if you want them to be easily transportable, but for home use anything goes.

Department stores have packs of paper shapes in the scrapbooking section which are great for gluing.

  • Glue stick and paper shapes for gluing

    When young toddlers first start to draw, tape one page at a time onto the table or highchair tray. For two reasons – it won’t keep slipping around and every page of the colouring book will not end up with a single blue line down the middle!

  • Drawing
  • Playdough
  • Stamping (stamp pads and ink stamps)
  • Lacing, threading or beading
  • Puzzles
  • Books
  • Construction toys
  • Pattern blocks
  • Stickers and sticker books
  • Small tea sets and mini teddies

    Finger puppets work best when the characters represent well knows stories that the children have heard you tell before.

  • Finger puppets
  • Mini whiteboard and eraser
  • Small chalk board and duster

    Simple stacking pegs are interesting once toddlers have the dexterity for it. This one kicked in at about 2 years when they could handle the quite stiff pegs.

  • Peg boards
  • Board games
  • Dot-to-dots and mazes
  • Colour-by-number
  • Stencils

You could include learning activities for basic maths and language skills. Starter Styles are a maths activity that cover a variety of beginning language and mathematical skills.

There are heaps of brilliant websites and blogs with an abundance of ideas for Ziploc bag activities;

Chasing Cheerios is one of my favourites with lots of wonderful toddler activities.

Natural Parents Network has some good ideas, including coloured pasta beading, pasta sorting, mini-books and stickers, lid sorting, playdough, cut and glue collage bag, and mini-playmats with cars and things.

Intrepid Murmurings has preschooler activity bags here.

There are lots of ideas for what they call “tote bags” here – just scroll down. They get better as they go.

Materials and storage for workjobs and Montessori tray activities

Plastic Chinese food containers fit neatly into my drawers and are a cheap and easy storage system for the items I use to make home-made workjobs and Montessori tray activities.

If you are setting yourself up for workjobs  or Montessori style tray activities for the first time there are unlimited numbers of materials that you could buy. Commercial Montessori products are beautiful but very expensive and particularly for the toddler and preschool ages it is relatively easy to make your own activities  for a fraction of the cost.

I generally source my materials secondhand form op shops, swap-meets and markets and buy the rest cheaply from discount variety stores or gather them from around the house. Each tray activity or workjob usually costs no more than $4.00 and many of the items can be re-used and presented with a different combination to make other “new” and interesting activities.

Some useful items to collect include the following:

Materials to count, transfer or manipulate:

  • Feathers
  • Buttons
  • Spools & film canisters
  • Jar & milk bottle lids
  • Pasta, macaroni, dried beans & rice
  • Corks
  • Sea shells
  • Popsicle sticks (popsticks)
  • Jewels & beads
  • Rocks, stones & pebbles
  • Straws
  • Fancy toothpicks
  • Golf tees
  • Stirring or cocktail sticks
  • Costume jewelry, bangles & strings of beads
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Rubber bands
  • String, twine, yarn, wool,shoe laces & cottons
  • Oversized metal or plastic needles
  • Paper bags, plates & cups
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Ribbon & bows
  • Hair clips & lackies
  • Magnets
  • Pompoms
  • Wedding favours eg. fake rings, mini doves, glass slippers etc.
  • Plastic & wooden pegs & dolly pegs
  • Dog clips, over-sized paperclips & other fasteners
  • Cardboard shapes
  • Number and letter tiles, cards & pieces from old board games
Materials for storage or presentation of trays and workjobs:
  • Glass, metal, china, cane & wooden bowls, trays, baskets & containers
  • Plastic tubs & lids
  • Cardboard tubes, boxes, egg cartons & food containers
  • Plastic containers & lids
  • Material/fabric scraps
  • Wood scraps
  • Shoe boxes
  • Ice-cube trays, dip trays & other divided containers
  • Plastic & glass jars
Utensils & tools for manipulating materials:
  • small hammers
  • Tongs, scoops, spoons & ladles
  • Tweezers
  • Measuring cups & funnels
  • Pens, pencils, textas, scissors & crayons
  • Glue, staplers, masking tape, sticky tape
  • Rulers, stencils, fasteners
If you have other ideas, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

Other posts you may like:

Montessori style tray activities; starting out

Montessori overview

Workjobs & learning styles

Highchair and mat activities: Montessori style practical life tong transfer activity for toddlers: Pom-poms, fruit and bugs

Over-sized pom-poms and tea bag tongs are a great starter set for tong transfer activities. The tongs are easy to manipulate and the pom-poms do not slip out.

As I have been tweaking my routine this week in readiness for our latest bundle of joy (now 3 days overdue!) I have been setting up some new tray activities for highchair time. Having toddlers on the loose while I breastfeed (especially when there are two of them) is a recipe for disaster. These activities can be used in a highchair, on a mat, for table time or for playpen time , however because I am introducing them to young toddlers and need to keep a close eye on them to begin with , I use highchair time.

Tonging is a simple practical life activity for toddlers and is excellent for fine motor control. Try to find small tongs that are not too stiff or your little ones may not have the dexterity to manage them. Tea bag tongs are easy to squeeze, as are ice tongs. Check your local opportunity shop (secondhand shops, $2 shops etc.) for supplies. Two containers and something to tong are your only other materials and usually with a bit of imagination you can find something around the house that fits the bill.

When I set up my trays I have a category for each kind of activity so that I can quickly change them over every couple of weeks without a lot of thought. Tong transfer is one category that I use and these are some of the examples I have set up in the past.

Slightly smaller pom-poms with the same easy to manipulate tea-bag tongs take the activity to the next level of difficulty.

The easiest first experiences are soft items like oversized pom-poms, cotton wool balls, balls of wool, or anything else that will not easily slip out of the tongs. Put only a few items in the container to begin with to encourage success as toddlers may quickly tire of the concentration and control needed to manage the tongs. Our “rule” with tray activities is that they should be completed before they are packed away so I want to ensure that the toddlers can be successful right from the beginning.

Larger and longer tongs are more difficult to use. These are still easy to squeeze but their length makes them more unwieldy to handle.The fruit are plastic iceblock shapes from the $2 shop.

A small set of salad tongs and a bag of plastic bugs were all that was needed for this tray.

The reality of young toddlers and tray activities is that they will have a limited concentration span and the interest shown for each activity will vary. I try to make each tray so that they can be easily completed in around 5 minutes. This means that if you want 30 minutes of highchair time to be well occupied, you will need around 6 activities. Some will be very absorbing for the child and they will complete and repeat them over and over. They will find some very challenging and perhaps even difficult and may want to spend less time on these. Reduce the amount of material on these trays accordingly. If you see that an activity is too difficult for the child to complete successfully, simply remove it and re-introduce at a later date. The perfect activity has a bit of a challenge but not so much that the child is frustrated by their inability to complete it.

Other posts you may like:

Mega marble transfer

An introduction to sorting

Bucket of giant beads transfer

Montessori style hands-on maths workjobs: Counting 1 to 10

Following on from yesterday’s post about teaching children to count to 5, here are some ideas for extending counting to 10. Again, all you need is 10 of some kind of container, something to count and numerals to order (or already marked on the containers.) If the child is required to order the numerals themselves, then including a number strip to follow means that they can do it independently without already knowing the order.

Kinesthetic learners learn best through hands-on activities, however all young children need plenty of experience with manipulating concrete materials to develop early maths concepts. Workjobs are explained to the child (catering to auditory learners), demonstrated to the child (visual learners) and then completed by the child (hands-on or kinesthetic learners.) There is no need to use dry math work books in the early stages when these basic concepts can be so easily developed with materials that are enjoyable to use and simple to make.

For children who do not yet recognise their numerals, this workjob is very simple and requires them only to match the number on the plastic balls to the corresponding number on the iceblock tray. I would then alter it into a counting activity by using plain ping-pong balls (no holes) with dots or tiny stickers on each one to count and match to the correct number.

In this activity the child counts the number of stamps and pokes a matchstick through the hole underneath the correct group. The card is self-checking because when you turn over to the back, there is a circle around the correct hole.

This "Princess rings" activity is a favourite of my girls. 10 tiny white jewellery bowls are set out then jewels with the numerals 1 to 10 are placed in order next to each bowl and the rings are counted into each bowl. The rings come from the wedding favours section of my local discount store. We made up all sorts of extra stories about how the princesses shared their rings out and had a lot of fun with this. Sometimes a good story adds so much to the fun of the activity!

The child orders the silver stars (bought from a party supplies shop) from 1 to 10 then counts the stickers on each golden star before matching them to their pair.

Foam stickers on baby food jars and some cheap party bead necklaces cut into lengths make this a bright and attractive counting activity. After ordering the jars from 1 to 10 the child counts the number of beads on each string and drops them into the correct jar. Not a good one for absolute beginners as the beads are quite small and it is easy to miss-count as the higher numbers are reached.

Hands-on maths workjobs: Counting 1 to 5

If you are blessed with a kinesthetic learner, providing hands-on learning experiences is vital. All young child however need to move from tactile or concrete mathematical experiences (where they manipulate objects to develop mathematical understanding) to abstract (“on paper”) experiences.

There is no better way to teach children to count than to have them go ahead and count! The first step is to ensure that they are able to recite the number order. The next step is to develop one-to-one correspondence (matching one number to one object.) After that, let the counting begin! You will need to step them through the process initially with lots of opportunities to count. Use everyday activities around the house to introduce this skill; setting out 4 plates, counting 3 sets of cutlery, placing 5 sultanas on a celery stick, collecting 5 hats for outside play etc.

To transition to the tray activities, you will also need to teach the children how to recognise and order the numerals to 5. This can be done as they complete the activities with self-checking number strips to match the numbers (see the egg carton castles example below) or taught separately before you give them the tray activities.

For homeschoolers, or those who are wanting educational ideas for highchair, mat or table time, here are some hands-on ideas for presenting counting from 1 to 5. While children can easily develop this skill through their every-day experiences around the home, these workjobs will help them to develop concentrating and focussing skills and are a great introduction to more complicated workjobs and Montessori style tray activities that will extend their skills as they grasp each basic beginner skill.

My older toddlers begin with these simple counting activities which virtually guarantee their success and I am able to teach them the general concept of how the experiences are presented and what they need to do. I can then change the materials, extend the numbers and gradually increase the difficulty of the experience to match their developmental levels. They love to manipulate the materials and enjoy the sense of accomplishment once they are able to complete each activity.

Before expecting a child to do the activities independently you will need to spend some time teaching them how to set out the containers, order the numbers and add the appropriate number of objects. Depending on their previous experiences with counting, this may be a very quick or more long-term process. Once they have mastered one counting experience though, the skill is then transferred to the next new activity with only a quick demonstration from Mum.

Any kind of container can be used and with a bunch of something to count and 5 numbers to order you are all set. Ideally workjobs should be self checking so that the child is able to self-correct their own work without your assistance.


This is the first tray counting experience I use. The popsticks are first sorted into colours (with the child already having completed many colour matching and sorting activities previously) before being counted and popped into the correct cup. If children do not yet recognise their numbers they are able to count the small chunks of popstick next to the number to find out which numeral it is. Those who are just beginning can simply match up the colours to find out which cup to put them in. If they are completing the activity with colours rather than numbers, I simply spend time with them counting the number of popsticks in each cup as we pack away the activity until they are able to transition to relying on their counting skills rather than the colours.

Including a number strip for the child to match to as they order their numerals means they can be successful without already knowing the number order. The dots next to the numerals on the side of the castles mean they can count to check how many even if they do not recognise the numeral itself. The correct amount of holes are poked in the castles so that the castle must have the correct number of flags.

Milk bottle tops marked with liquid paper are the numerals here (you could include a number strip to match to if needed) and the size of the cups can be ordered as well for an extra dimension. The child sets out the 5 cups, orders the numerals, then counts out the correct number of pegs for each cup. Pegging is also an excellent fine motor skill.

Coloured pompoms are matched to the same colour sticker in the muffin tin. This is more a one-to-one correspondence experience as no numerals are included, however I have the child count how many there are in each hole before they pack them away.

The numbers are set out first (following the number strip if needed) then the  jewels on each popstick are counted to match the correct number. Popsticks are colour coded to the numerals to make them self-checking.

Check through your cupboards to find a group of containers, write some numbers on anything handy, add something to count and you have a simple counting workjob. Two dollar shops and other discount stores are great for finding appealing bits and bobs to count and manipulate and a multitude of activities can be set up with very little expense or effort required. Young children love to do “school” with their older siblings and this is the perfect introduction for them.

Sorting: Montessori Style Tray Activities

Here are some more Montessori style tray activities for sorting. These are a little more open-ended and follow on from sorting experiences already presented (Click here for an explanation of how to introduce and sequence sorting experiences and here for the follow-on with 4 and 5 category sorting ideas.)


  • The child uses the plates to sort the plastic cutlery according to their chosen attribute. There is more than one way to sort the cutlery and once children have sorted one way (usually by colour) I ask them to see if they can do it another way (by type; knives, forks, small and large spoons.)


  • Mathematics


  • Sorting, classifying, identifying attributes


  • 4 plates
  • 4 sets of real or plastic cutlery


  • Children place the chopsticks into the egg carton holes then drop the beads onto each chopstick according to their colour.


  • Mathematics


  • Sorting, classifying, identifying attributes


  • large beads (same shape) with 4 colours or
  • large beads of the same colour with 4 different shapes
  • 4 chopsticks
  • egg carton segment


  • Children sort the animals into the craft container according to their chosen attribute (type of animal, colour, number of legs, zoo or farm etc.)


  • Mathematics


  • Sorting, classifying, identifying attributes


  • plastic animals (these are called cocktail animals and came from the party section of a discount variety store.)
  • segmented container or collection of small containers to sort animals into.


  • Children place the chopsticks into the holes before sorting the beads onto each chopstick according to their chosen attribute. (This is a commercial set of attribute beads and can be sorted by several different attributes.)


  • Mathematics


  • Sorting, classifying, identifying attributes


  • attribute beads
  • 6 chopsticks
  • cardboard box with contacted top for strength and holes for chopsticks

Please see my pages titled “Workjobs and Learning Styles” and “Brief Montessori Overview” for more general information on Montessori and workjob activities.

Make your own baby and toddler toys: posting bottles

Babies and toddlers just love to put things inside small spaces and empty containers out. It is great fine motor practise and they will often concentrate for amazing lengths of time if the challenge level is just right. If a child is frustrated by their inability to do the task, simply change the activity for now and re-introduce it a little later. It should have an element of difficulty, but not so difficult that they cannot be successful. This is a great activity for highchair time, playpen timemat time or table time.


  • The child posts the dolly pegs into the lid of the bottle and pulls them back out the bottom.


  • Fine motor development


  • Large plastic bottle with hole cut into the front. (Tape hole to cover sharp edges)
  • Dolly pegs or any other suitable object to post into the top of the bottle (regular pegs, wooden peg halves, popsticks etc.)

In this example the solid bottle adds a different dimension and the pegs are shaken out once posted.

The posting bottle can be combined with other skills. Sliding the dolly pegs on and off the edge of a sturdy cardboard box is a complete activity in itself. My children usually enjoyed taking the pegs off the box but did not choose to put them back on again. When they were finished with the activity we slid them back on to the box together as part of the packing up process and they happily practised this skill.

Please see my articles titled “Workjobs and Learning Styles” and “Brief Montessori Overview” for more information.

5 Category Sorting: A Montessori style tray activity

(For a detailed introduction on how to introduce sorting to toddlers, it may be helpful to read this post first.)

4 colour metal patty-pan sorting.

After my toddlers have been introduced to sorting and have extended their skills to independently identifying 4 or 5 attributes or more, I continue to swap the materials that they sort, but keep the base tray or sorting containers the same. This means that I can change the material and present a “new” tray activity with little or no explanation. The children are immediately familiar with the type of activity and therefore already know what to do.

This is important for when I am teaching older children at the same time as a toddler is working on their Montessori style activities so that I am not constantly interupted. It also means that I am not having to demonstrate or “teach” every single new tray activity – once the format is familiar, I can change materials and off they go.

I set up each term’s worth of tray activities with chosen categories (transferring, sorting, matching, counting, pouring etc.) and simply update the materials as necessary without having to re-introduce each activity.

This wooden tray lends itself well to 4 or 5 attribute sorting and by simply changing the materials I can easily update it throughout a term with very little effort. I also add a pair of tongs, tweezers, scoop or spoon to incorporate fine motor skills and turn it into a transferring activity at the same time, which adds an extra level of challenge to the activity.

5 colour pony bead sorting. (The bowl needs to be moved off to the side to provide room for the 5th colour.)

5 colour jewel sorting. Most of these objects pose a choking hazard so take care with young children who still like to put things in their mouths. Jewels are so tempting for toddlers to suck on.

4 colour plastic flower sort.

5 types of dried beans.

5 kinds of buttons.

5 colours of Christmas craft bells.

5 kinds of pasta and dried beans.

5 coloured marble sort.

5 kinds of pasta.

5 kinds of shells.

5 kinds of farm animals.

An introduction to Sorting: A Montessori Style Tray Activity

Two colour bead sort with attribute or category already given. The first exposure to sorting for my toddlers.

Sorting is an important foundational skill requiring reasoning, logic and mathematical thinking. It enables children to be able to look at a group of objects and identify similarities and differences and to make logical decisions as to how to categorise the objects. Sorting skills will transfer into other academic subjects such as science and mathematics later in life.

Sorting frequently covers other basic skills such as colour recognition and counting and if combined with some kind of transfer tool such as tongs, spoons, tweezers or scoops, will develop fine motor skills at the same time.

I usually tape a peg to the top of each container to designate the attribute category until the child is able to determine a category independently.

I present sorting to my toddlers with only 2 categories to begin with, in the form of a Montessori style tray activity. In other words, only 2 attributes are present. These attributes could be the colour of the object, the shape, size, length or thickness etc. but whatever it is, there are only 2 possible ways to sort them. I also tape or glue one of each kind of object to the sorting container so it is essentially a matching activity as well as sorting for their first experience.

Once they are able to look at the objects (in this case beads) and identify the similarities (all beads of the same size and shape) and differences (colour) they are ready to sort according to the attribute they have identified without a pre-determined category to guide them.

We talk about the objects; what they are, what colour, size, shape etc and focus on what is the same and different about them. I then sort the first few objects (talking about their attributes) while the child watches and ask them to see if they can tell why I am separating them as I am. If they are able to tell me, I ask them to see if they can sort the rest or simply explain why I have sorted as I did and demonstrate further before asking them to have a go.

Once they are able to sort by the two attributes with a category already given (one of each object taped to the container) I present two attribute sorting again without the categories already chosen and help the child to identify the two attributes themselves and sort accordingly.

An example of 3 category/attribute sorting. Generally colour is an easy way for toddlers to sort as a beginning skill. More abstract attributes can be introduced later.

After they have mastered sorting 2 attributes with a variety of objects, I extend the possible attributes or categories to 3, 4, 5 or more attributes, until they are able to sort any objects set before them and justify their reasoning.

In this example the coloured bowls determine the category or attribute so it doubles as a matching activity also.