Lock & Key – Math Activity

math centre activityKids love using keys and learning is more fun with something you love to play with .  This math activity is a cinch to prepare and as you will see fun even when it gets challenging. You can easily customize it for any level of math ability or even just let let them try to find the right key without any numbers which is great fine motor skill practice.

  1. Gather your materials. You will need some peel and stick labels, a marker, and some locks with matching keys. 
  2. I wrote out the words , numbers and simple equations for each lock and key.
  3. The first part of the activity had my son matching the number written out  on the lock with the number on the key.
  4. On the other side of the lock I had the simple equation.
  5. He jumped on the words and numbers happily – they were fun and easy.
  6. Then I locked them all and mixed them up.
  7. This took some thinking and using of fingers to count which he did under the table . He is reluctant to use his fingers and wants to “just know” the right answer. This is something we are working on as showing the work is so important.
  8. He got it!

You can do this for so many things and I’d love to do it with words using pictures but I need to collect more locks – they aren’t as cheap as I had hoped!

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  1. says

    This is great! Love it!

  2. Janel says

    I’m sure my son would love this, thanks! I feel so lucky that my son is the same age as yours, so this blog often feels custom made for us! I’d love to hear more about how you encourage your son through those times when he thinks he should “just know” an answer. My son is having a similar frustration with reading lately. I’m always interested in hearing ways to encourage without pushing.

    • admin says


      It’s interesting because I naturally attack learning challenges as a teacher and I have had to stop that because I am not his teacher and he is not my student he’s my son . Once I reminded myself of that I started modeling not always knowing the answer, doing research for even small questions ( like can a gorilla kill a bear? ) and most importantly asking my husband who does all math in his head to try to show his work if our son asks. It’s not the only way but it seems to be helping some , some days…

  3. says

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this idea. My son would love this as we have issues with him wanting to do math… but I can also see using this in our preschool classrooms as a matching activity with letters or shapes or anything really. Thanks!

  4. says

    What an awesome activity. We definitely need to find some locks!

    Allie – I like your comment above about modeling not knowing the answer. I also like to model making mistakes when I am learning and show my son how to ask for help or find the answer. I think as a teacher I was terrible at that.

    • admin says

      Isn’t it interesting what changes from teaching a group of 15-20 to how you teach just a few that you are so much more invested in? As a teacher I felt comfortable making much much deeper lines in the sand because there is more room for black and white in a classroom especially because of need for authority and behavior management. I don’t think I am a will nilly parent at all but kids need more grey at home to test things out etc… than they do in a class where strict unbending approaches can work for the greater good. So yeah showing vulnerability , showing uncertainty has been very beneficial. That said he is a perfectionist through and through and stubborn as both of his parents so it’s a battle but we’ll get there.

  5. says

    What a great activity! I work with toddlers right now, but I have a boy that would LOVE this! He is always buckling the highchair straps and likes to unlock doors. We’ll see what I come up with for him.

  6. Judi says

    Another great idea!

    But more importantly, I find this a Life Skill that many of our students are not being taught. Such a simple concept for most of us to lock and unlock a door, but for many it is several skills: getting the key in, turning the key, turning the door knob, pushing open the door and finally, getting the key out. I’ve taught at the transition level (18-22) and every year, I need to stop and teach just this.

    I applaud you for mastering the task as a regular life skill taught at an age appropriate level and not as a remedial task to help them survive, as an adult. We seem to have way too many families babysitting their children with special needs instead of teaching them as we would any other “normal” child. I apologize if I offend anyone, but when you see capable adults being dressed, fed and other tasks that they “can” complete, we are handicapping our own children.

    Sorry for my soapbox, but you and I are part of the same team to help your child master the skills that will increase their quality of life and their independence. I am not just a teacher of students with Special Needs, but I am a sibling, caregiver and now an educator trying to pay it forward for all the wonderful concepts and skills that my brother enjoyed. Steve was born with Down syndrome in 1959 when it was all about institutionalization. He lived at home and thrived until his death in 2008.

    • Audrey says

      Yes! I completely agree, that it is our jobs as parents/caregivers to do more than just care for them, but to help teach them ways that they can succeed in life skills. That there are things such as operating a washing machine, that many that can do, don’t get taught because they’re so taken care of.

  7. Holly Fedders says

    I love this idea. My son is very into keys right now. So simply having a key is enough.
    Anyway, I wanted to let you know a idea when I taught 5th grade. I found locks that had a combination on them to use with math as well. It was a center activity when students finished work early. I had several index cards with clues and math equations for students to complete. The answers were the combinations to the lock. Once they had the combination they could unlock the lock. From time to time I attached the lock to a chest of small prizes like stickers or erasers. Other times it was by itself for fun. Just a thought for later years, or now…?

  8. Denise Erdman says

    Love this, especially for the motor skills, but also for the extra chances for other teaching moments. So far as the keys and locks are concerned – try a pawnshop, or a second-hand, rehab store that sells items specifically for houses that are being redone, “flipped”, for habitat for humanity situations. Prices are cheap because all items are donated. Most major, even not-so-major, lol, cities and towns have and/or are close to one of these stores. Look and see. 🙂

  9. Shelly says

    Dollar Tree has locks for $1 each. After seeing this, I bought ten for my Kindergarten class. Each lock comes with three keys. The locks and keys are pretty much identical. There are so many ways to do this activity! Matching dots and numerals/written numbers and numerals/math sentences/etc. Thanks for the inspiration!


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