Ocean-Themed Math and Literacy Activities For Preschool Lesson Planning

As children learn about their local environment, neighborhoods, and communities, they may wonder what other environments exist in the world. One of our planet's largest environments, the ocean, affects us all in positive ways. It provides us with food, climate regulation, and economic progress, among other things. 

While all children do not have access to or see the ocean, coral reefs, and marine life on a daily basis, most children can relate to this environment through a visit to a public aquarium, museum, pet store, or home aquarium. Even if your program operates miles from the coastline, you can encourage children’s wonder and curiosity about ocean environments through stories and hands-on learning activities.

The ocean-themed activities you will find in this article are perfect for children ages 3-5 years old. They will help children think critically and creatively while building a solid foundation in early mathematics and literacy skills. To make it easier for you to implement these activities in your classroom, we've included a list of materials and idea starters to help you enrich the play happening in your classroom learning centers. 

How does Kaplan ensure that these activities are age-appropriate and support the educational needs of children ages 3 to 5?

As a leader in early childhood education for more than 50 years, we understand the importance of classroom activities that are founded on research and support educational best practices. 

The activities in this article were inspired by the Gryphon House books Math in Minutes: Easy Activities For Children Ages 4-8, Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities That Teach Pre-Reading Skills, and the pre-K curriculum Connect4Learning. We also categorize these activities by classroom learning center to make lesson planning quick and easy!

Ocean-themed loose parts center activities that promote math and literacy skills:

An image of the Coral Connections building set being pieced together.

Coral Reef Construction

Talk with children about coral reefs, what they consist of, how they benefit ocean life, and where you can find them. Provide various building materials such as chenille stems, paper towel rolls, blocks, and clean sponges that the children can use to construct their own classroom coral reef. As the children build, invite them to think critically and creatively by asking questions such as:

  • What might you use to create a sea anemone?
  • What type of coral has the same texture as this piece of sponge?
  • How might you build a coral cave where an octopus can hide?
  • What kinds of fish would want to live in your coral reef?
  • How can you keep your coral reef healthy and thriving?


Incorporating literacy into this activity:

Once your classroom coral reef construction is complete, work together as a group to create a story about a fish living in the reef and what adventures it might go on. As the children provide elements for the story, use a large sheet of paper or whiteboard to document it so the children can associate written words with the words they hear. 

Encourage the children to create a story that follows a sequence of events, starting with the fish waking up in the morning and ending with the fish going to sleep at night. 

Incorporating math into this activity:

Introduce children to the concept of measurement by using a ruler to find the length and height of the children's coral reef constructions. Have the children make guesses about the size of their coral reef construction before revealing the final numbers. You can also use other materials, such as string, sticks, or classroom blocks, to measure your classroom’s coral reef. 


What inspired this activity?

The books Math in Minutes: Easy Activities For Children Ages 4-8 and Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities That Teach Pre-Reading Skills inspired this activity. These books also provide more activities that facilitate the development of early literacy and math skills.

Ocean-themed art center activities that promote math and literacy skills:

An image of the book, Home For Hermit Crab, and various plastic sea creatures and art materials sitting on a wooden table in an early childhood classroom.
Hermit Crab Houses

Before starting this activity, read Eric Carle's A House For Hermit Crab. Display the book in your classroom art center to inspire children as they create their own hermit crab houses using clay and various art materials. Give each child a ball of air-dry clay or dough, and encourage them to mold it into a shape that resembles a hermit crab shell. Next, ask them to decorate the shell using any loose parts or art materials you supply. Once the shells are complete, display them on a prominent shelf in your classroom.  

You can provide opportunities for meaningful conversations and creative thinking by asking children these questions while they decorate their hermit crab shell:

  • If your hermit crab wants to blend in with the sandy ocean floor, what materials might you use to decorate its shell?
  • What size might your hermit crab's shell need to be if their body is as wide as this pencil?
  • How might your hermit crab's shell feel if you were to add crepe paper to it?
  • Would adding gemstones make your hermit crab's shell shiny or dull?


Incorporating literacy into this activity:

Have the children create their own hermit crab books by securing a few sheets of loose paper together using staples, tape, or yarn. Encourage them to write a short story about their hermit crab, even if the children are still developing their letter-formation skills. You can inspire creative thinking by asking the children to write stories that mention:

  • Their hermit crab's name and where it lives
  • What their hermit crab likes to do for fun
  • The other sea animals the hermit crab likes to play with

Incorporating math into this activity:

Create several "decoration prompt cards" encouraging children to use specific shapes and item amounts when decorating their hermit crab home. These cards will help children improve their ability to recognize numbers and shapes and build their literacy skills while reading the prompt. Ask the children to count aloud as they add materials to their shells to strengthen their number knowledge. Here is an example of what your decoration prompt cards might look like:

Add 5 ☆ and 3 Δ to the shell


Add 5 blue ♡ to the shell


What inspired this activity?

This activity was inspired by the book Math in Minutes: Easy Activities For Children Ages 4-8. It also includes math activities that help children grasp concepts such as measuring, sorting, patterning, problem-solving, and more. 

Ocean-themed sensory activities that promote math and literacy skills:

An image of plastic sea creatures and letter shapes in a classroom sand table.

Ocean Observations

Before you begin this activity, discuss the various animals that live in the ocean or read a book such as The Ocean Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta and Frank Mazzola, Jr. Fill a sensory bin or sand and water table with any sensory-friendly material you have on hand. You could also use water or blue Space Sand to make the children feel like they are exploring the ocean. 

Add alphabet manipulatives and ocean animal toys to your sensory-friendly material. Have children use their hands or small tools to explore the "ocean" as they discover letters and ocean animals. Encourage critical thinking skills by asking the following questions:

  • I see a tentacle peeking out of the sand. What animal might that belong to?
  • Rub the jellyfish. Does it feel smooth or bumpy?
  • What do you notice about the color of this shark? Why might it have stripes and spots?


Incorporating literacy into this activity:

As the children uncover alphabet manipulatives while exploring the "ocean," ask them to identify an ocean animal whose name starts with that same letter. For example, if a child uncovers the letter "O," the ocean animal they could name is an octopus. As children uncover ocean animal toys, have them identify the first letter of the animal's name. This discovery activity provides an exciting way to help children improve their letter recognition and sounds.  

Incorporating math into this activity:

While the children are exploring the "ocean" and discovering the animal toys within, encourage them to explore the characteristics of each animal and how they move around in the water. How many fins does a fish have? How many tentacles does the octopus have? Using a blank sheet of paper, create a graph that documents the children's findings. Once the activity is complete, compare the animals to see which have the same or differing characteristics. Here is an example of what that graph could look like: 


  Fins Tentacles Flippers
Octopus   8  
Sea Lion     4
Dolphin 3    


What inspired this activity?

This activity was inspired by the book Math in Minutes: Easy Activities For Children Ages 4-8 and Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities That Teach Pre-Reading Skills. These books also provide more activities that facilitate the development of early literacy and math skills. 

Ocean-themed small group activities that promote math and literacy skills:

An image of a young child's hand holding a paint dauber and creating colorful patterns on a paper sentence strip.
Fishy Patterns

Start by reading the book Pattern Fish by Trudy Harris. If you do not have this book in your classroom, that is fine. This activity aims to introduce children to the concept of creating patterns. Give each child a blank sentence strip and materials in varying colors, shapes, or sizes. The children can use fish toys, paint dot markers, torn paper, or blocks to create patterns on their sentence strips. 

Encourage critical thinking and open communication during this activity by asking the children these questions as they create fishy patterns:

  • How might you use your materials to create a pattern?
  • If you want to create an ABCABC fishy pattern, how many different objects or colors of material will you need?


  • Sentence strips
  • Fish toys for pattern-making
  • Paint Dot Markers
  • Miscellaneous patterning materials

Incorporating literacy into this activity:

When you think of pattern-making, your mind might automatically think of visual patterns children can make with blocks or colors. However, children can also work on their literacy skills by creating patterns with sound. Ask children to describe different sounds an ocean animal might make as they move through the water. Then, create patterns with these sounds that the children must repeat. Here are some example sound patterns:

  • Swish, Swish, Float. Swish, Swish, Float.
  • Splash, Glide, Swish. Splash, Glide, Swish.
  • Pop, Pop, Wiggle. Pop, Pop, Wiggle. 
You can also use this idea to have the children create sound patterns using letter sounds. 

Incorporating math into this activity:

Creating patterns and sorting objects by shape and color is a great way to introduce children to foundational math concepts. By providing prompts that describe additional patterns they might create, you can help children think beyond their typical ABAB and ABCABC pattern-making. 

What inspired this activity?

This activity was inspired by the book Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities That Teach Pre-Reading Skills. This book also provides additional literacy-based activity ideas, such as Grocery Store, Pet Shop, and Gardener.

Help children learn through play!

You now have a few ocean-themed activity ideas to help children grasp early literacy and math skills in fun and engaging ways. Use the activities above as inspiration while planning your weekly lessons, and feel free to make changes to better suit the needs of the children in your care. 

Ready to add these activities to your lesson plans? Download a PDF version of this article to quickly and easily refer to the materials, activity details, and enrichment opportunities. 



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