Exploring 3D Shapes

Age 3 to 5
Challenge Level


Children enjoy making imprints in soft materials. Adults can use this idea to encourage children to manipulate 3D shapes and develop an awareness of the shapes of their faces.

The activity

Provide children with soft dough, and a selection of small wooden blocks of various shapes. Talk about experiences of making footprints in sand or snow.  Encourage children to select a block and to press it into the dough, making a ‘footprint’. Show how to run a finger around the edge of the impression to feel the shape.


Mathematical Opportunities/curriculum links

Describing and comparing 2D shapes.
Understanding the characteristics of 3D shapes.


The big ideas and their progression

Properties of 3D shapes

Describing the shape of each block using simple language; flat, sharp, slopey, pointy, like a brick, ball, box, roof etc.
          Talking about the way in which the shape behaves:  Does it roll or slide?   Can you stack them?

Recognising the shapes of faces:

Exploring and describing shapes as children handle the blocks, turning them and looking at the various faces. It is important that children examine the blocks from all perspectives, seeing which shapes are ‘underneath’ the block or on the ‘other side’.


Developing familiarity with the faces of 3D shapes

Encourage children to run fingers around the impression and the edges of the block face, appreciating the connection between the two.


Using mathematical language about the shapes

Talk about the impressions made by the blocks and compare the shapes made by different blocks or of different faces of the same block: 
Examples: Straight, curved, round, pointy, bigger, smaller, longer, shorter, corner, like a, same as..
The children may begin by talking about attributes of the shapes they make by using informal descriptions such as roundy, bendy, straight, pointy and move on to more formal language about curves, sides and corners.

Reinforce the learning by ‘fitting’ the block back onto its footprint, making a connection between the face and the block face and the shape of the impression. 

Encourage children to turn each block in their hands looking for faces that might make different ‘footprint’ shapes.


Encouraging mathematical thinking and talking:


I wonder if all these shapes can make round footprints?


Doing and undoing

What happens if we stand the shape back in its footprint?



What shape of footprints do you think this shape could make?


Exploring, comparing and describing

See what shapes of footprints you can make.
Tell me about the footprints this shape has made.
What does it remind you of?
Look at the footprints made by this big block and this small one. Do they look the same?
How is it the same as/ different from …?



All the questions presented here can be followed up with questions asking children to say how they know something and why something is the case

Conjecturing - what if?

Do you think the same shape would be made if we turned the block around or over.


Mark making

Draw around the block.  Look at the shape you have made. Is it the same shape as the ‘footprint’?

Pattern sniffing

Can you see any other blocks which might make the same shape?
Cube:  Can this shape make different kinds of footprints?
Cylinder:  Try printing with the two ends of this shape. What do you notice?   


How many different footprints do you think you can you make with this shape?
Which shapes might have made this footprint?
How do you think this block made this footprint? Which way up was it?
Look at the block from here. What shape can you see now?


What are the resources?

Soft dough
Selection of wooden blocks of various shapes
Rolling pin to ‘re-flatten’ the dough
Camera or video camera for recording results

Additional resources


Providing more opportunities

Encourage children to make ‘footprints’ in dough or sand using every day objects:
hands and feet. spoons of different sizes,  dice, lolly sticks, leaves,  shells, small world play equipment, pieces of other costruction kits
Printing with cut vegetables and paint.
Shadow play
Pressing natural materials such as pebbles, twigs, cones and flowers into soft earth
Making handprints in salt dough that can be baked to keep
Dip feet in baby talc to make prints on black paper
Balloon printing – dip a partially blown balloon into paint to print
Play with shape sorter toys in which blocks are fitted into shaped slots
Using cutters to make gingerbread or pastry shapes

Playing with old-fashioned picture puzzle blocks

Story, rhyme and song links

The Blue Balloon by Mick Inkpen
Changes by Anthony Browne
The six blind men and the elephant by Clare Boucher and Rachel Merriman

Jack and Jill went up the hill (slppes and rolling )