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What shape is it? Activities that explore line, dimension, and size

oung children use all their senses to explore their environment. Shape—an object’s characteristic surface form or contour—is as important to a toddler teething on a round rubber ball as it is to a mathematician writing a formula to describe the shape of a sandy coastline. Shape gives us vital information about the world.

Basic shapes include a line, circle, square, rectangle, and triangle. Typically teachers help children learn to identify shapes by providing art, number, block, and music activities.

But often teachers miss the ways that shape relates to other elements of children’s learning. Shape is an important part of visual acuity and discrimination as well as literacy and letter recognition. It’s key to body awareness (how the body senses itself) and spatial awareness (how we sense ourselves in relation to the people and things around us). In addition, shape is fundamental to math—specifically, the math of geometric forms.

The following activities, arranged in rough developmental sequence, offer new opportunities to help children explore basic shapes and relationships.


Toddlers need a clear introduction to shapes without the drill-and-kill of coloring sheets and copying teacher-made models. Make sure you provide classroom play materials that are inviting. Encourage sensory exploration.

Always have conversations that include descriptive information—a , red ball, a wooden block, and tasty of oven-fried potatoes, for example. Invite responses and listen to gauge their understanding.

Art materials, such as paint and clay, and manipulatives, like locking bricks and jigsaw puzzles, invite explorations of shape. Make these available to children throughout the day.


Touch it
Here’s what you need:
simple shapes in colored cardboard
large outdoor area
clothespins or tape


1. Invite the children to identify the shapes you’ve cut from colored cardboard.
2. Hang or tape the shapes to different areas of the playground.
3. Explain that you’ll call out the shape names, they will run and touch the shape, and then they will run back to you.
4. Play the game sporadically to maintain children’s interest.

Variation: Use the game as a transition activity. Call the shape name closest to you to gather the children to move to another activity area.


Shapely snacks
Here’s what you need:
whole wheat crackers in a variety of shapes
cheese slices cut into matching shapes
serving plates
individual snack plates and napkins


1. After children wash their hands, invite them to serve themselves three crackers in different shapes.
2. Pass around the cheese plate and encourage children to match the cheese shape to their crackers.
3. Talk with children during snack time about shapes and tastes. Ask, “Do you think the square crackers taste the same as the round ones?” Respond, and extend the conversation.


Fingerpaint lines
Here’s what you need:
liquid laundry starch
liquid tempera paint
mixing bowl and spoon
painting paper
drawing tools like chopsticks, unsharpened pencils, or straws
old newspaper
plastic sheet


1. Make a batch of fingerpaint by mixing ½ cup liquid starch with ½ cup liquid tempera.
2. Protect the work area by covering it with a plastic sheet or old, clean shower curtain.
3. Pad the painting paper with several sheets of newspaper.
4. Spoon fingerpaint onto the painting paper. Some toddlers won’t want to have paint on their hands. Invite them to use paint tools to make lines in the paint.


Shape days
Share lesson plans with parents alerting them to shape days. Designate square, circle, and star days, for example, and ask children to bring a safe and sturdy object from home in the appropriate shape. Prepare a classroom space for the collection and invite children to investigate and identify each object. Make sure children return objects to their homes at the end of the day.


Mystery shape
Here’s what you need:
fabric bag or pillow case
objects with identifiable shapes such as a ball, block, domino, plastic banana, and cardboard tube


1. Before children arrive, place three to five objects in the bag.
2. Invite children, one at a time, to feel inside the bag and call the name of the object before pulling it out. Ask questions to help children build identification skills: For example, ask, “Is it smooth? Does it have one side? Are there corners? Is it hollow?”


With experience, 3-year-olds are ready for deeper investigations of shapes. Typically, most can identify basic shapes—circles, squares, and triangles—but will need guidance in describing the characteristics of each. Help children observe and examine objects by asking questions—and responding to answers.

Slowly introduce more complex shapes and their characteristics. Use both indoor and outside time to point out relationships between shapes. During block play, for example, you might say, “Look, you made a square with these two triangle blocks.”


Placemat faces
Here’s what you need:
sheets of colored mural paper
construction paper
by Lois Ehlert
laminator or adhesive-backed plastic


1. Cut the mural paper into 12-inch by 18-inch rectangles, one for each child.
2. Cut the construction paper into basic shapes: large circles, smaller circles, rectangles, triangles, and thin strips.
3. Share the book . Encourage children to talk about the shapes and colors of the animals.
4. Introduce the activity by explaining that children will make shape-face placemats to use at lunchtime or for snack.
5. Provide construction paper shapes and glue. Encourage the children to sign their faces.
6. Laminate the placemats and make them available for the children’s use for as long as they are clean and in good condition.

Variation: If you celebrate Halloween, prepare the activity so children can make paper Jack-o-lantern placemats.


Follow the lines
Here’s what you need:
small photo albums with plastic sleeves
washable markers
colored construction paper
straight edge
damp paper towels


1. Cut basic shapes from construction paper, and place each cutout in one of the album sleeves.
2. Gather a small group of children, and show them how to trace around the shapes, using a straight edge and markers.
3. When finished, encourage the children to prepare the materials for the next user by wiping off marker lines with a damp paper towel.

Variation: Use pictures from magazines in place of the construction paper. Older children will be able to identify and trace several basic shapes in the same picture.