Learning Numeracy with Number Rods: Montessori-Inspired Math for Toddlers

Learning with Number Rods: a great way to teach toddlers about quantity and counting

(Total change of subject from my evangelism series, I know.  All the blogging gurus tell you to focus on one central idea, but I just have too many interests. Sorry! Maybe a few of you will find this interesting? For the record, I’m planning to return to that series yet with a few more posts. Just taking a little detour.)

I came across number rods in some of my Montessori reading a few months back, around Lydia’s second birthday. They seemed like a great tool to help enhance her understanding of counting and numbers. I was really eager to make some for Lydia, and pestered Ben mercilessly to help me gather the materials and assemble them. I finally introduced them to Lydia with great enthusiasm.

She didn’t get it and was totally uninterested. I sighed and put them away for six months.

I recently re-introduced them to her, and to my delight, she takes great interest in lining them up and counting them, and will do so on her own initiative.

I really do think they enhance her understanding of quantity and numbers, and thought I’d share our experience.

Using number rods to learn math - Montessori for toddlers

Making Number Rods

Number rods are a set of ten lengths of wood that vary in size incrementally. They alternate between two colours (traditionally red and blue), and when you line them up in order, they create a “stair” effect.

My number rods are not perfect by Montessori standards, but they follow the same basic principles.

To make the number rods, I just had Ben cut ten lengths of solid oak, from one to ten inches long. (Each square is one inch tall. So our first rod is one inch long; our second one is two inches long, etc.) (Hint: You could probably use paint stirring sticks for this material).

I used two colours of paint that we happened to have left over from past projects (lime and grey). I marked them off into one-inch segments, used masking tape to create clean(ish) lines, and painted the segments one colour at a time (first the lime, then the grey).

I chose to add the numerals at the bottom of one side. They can be flipped so that the numerals don’t show if you prefer to use them that way.

Using the Number Rods

This tool is great, in my opinion, because it gives the child a sensorial impression of quantity. In other words, Lydia can see what each quantity looks like. She can see that when you go up in numerals, you get a greater quantity, which means a greater length. And she can see which numeral goes with each quantity, giving her greater familiarity with the numerals and what they mean.

For now, we’re just using them to understand length, quantity and and counting. Later, you can use them to learn more complex math skills.

When I first (re-)introduced them to her (at thirty months, or two-and-a-half), I simply laid them out randomly, and then told her I was going to line them up from shortest to longest.

I started with one and two, and then asked her which was the next longest. She quickly caught on and lined the rest up in order from shortest to longest.

Using number rods to learn quantity - math for toddlers

I then went through and counted them from one to ten, and invited her to join me.

I keep them in a Ziploc bag in her activity dresser (I know: NOT Montessori), and to my delight, she will often get them out herself and start lining them up, shortest to longest, completely independently.

Then she will go through and count them out loud, putting her finger on each one.

Using number rods to learn numbers - Montessori for toddlers

Have you used number rods? Any other great ideas or tools for introducing math basics to young children?

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  1. This is a great idea! My girl is only 16 months, so I’ll have to hold onto this for a while. Interestingly enough your comment about how your daughter can relate the numbers to the length of the stick and thus get a feel for what the numbers mean applies to adults too. John Allen Paulos writes in his book “Innumeracy” that one of the reasons adults commonly mistake millions, billions and trillions is simply because the numbers are so big we have no mental picture for them. He then gives his trick for visualizing millions and billions. It’s really a fascinating (and easier than you would expect) read!

  2. I’m just curious- Why do you say it is NOT Montessori to keep them in a ziplock bag in her activity dresser? We have an activity wardrobe for our girls, where they can reach in and grab an activity. It feels very Montessori to me… to have it on their level for easy access!

    Great post- I think my girls would love this idea! And I appreciate the how-to as well.

    • Heh — well, maybe it’s not ANTI-Montessori. I just usually see everything in open trays and on open shelves in Montessori books/blogs, and there’s usually no plastic to be seen anywhere. But you’re right — as long as she can access it herself, it’s still in keeping with the philosophy, right?

      • I thought this same thing! She can get it…meh, it works!

        Also, I really want to make a hex screw board. I looked it up and they cost about $50. Seriously. For a board with some hex screws. I’m going to attempt it anyway, but man, I wish my husband was a woodworker! That’s all I’ll say on that.
        alison recently posted..Our (East Coast) gardenMy Profile

  3. What a neat idea! My daughter LOVES numbers and counting. I bet she’d love this too. One more thing to add to my to-make list.
    Michele recently posted..Motherhood with a Toddler, while ExpectingMy Profile

  4. All kids can benefit from using visual representations, although struggling students may require additional, focused support and practice. Visual representations are a powerful way for kids to access abstract mathematical ideas.Developing this strategy early gives kids tools for engaging with—and ways of thinking about—increasingly abstract concepts.

    simon recently posted… learn arabic and english and math

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