Many parents can easily read a book to a 3-year-old, but how about engaging a preschooler in math activities? Current research shows that fostering math skills at a young age is as important as the ability to read. Children with a strong foundation of math skills in early years perform better across all subject areas, including reading. In fact, reading and math capabilities are closely linked partners in academic achievement and improved cognition later in life.
“When children have a strongly internalized understanding of numbers before beginning kindergarten, they are far more likely to demonstrate long-term proficiency not only in mathematics but also in literacy over their academic lives.” ~ Center for Childhood Creativity, 2018
Early math is fundamental because children use math concepts in their daily routines. Nurturing the value of math skills in early youth may help alleviate the anxiety that an increasing number of older students experience who struggle with math. Negative self-talk in students creates a reticence to work through challenging problems in school. Children will achieve more if they are indoctrinated when young with a positive mindset that math can be enjoyable, math is not something to be afraid of, and making mistakes is part of the learning process.
“Our future depends on mathematical thinking…” ~ Jo Boaler, It’s Time to Stop the Clock on Math Anxiety, Hechinger Report, 2017
Many parents have a fixed belief in their own math abilities. They may feel uncomfortable with math themselves, let alone how to develop the skills in a young child. Teaching math theories to children can be facilitated by understanding how they learn and make sense of math. Current studies reveal preschoolers are capable of grasping how to count, add and subtract, if questions are asked in the right way.
It’s valuable for parents to assimilate the paths or layers of thinking that young children go through to master these concepts. For instance, counting seems like a simple activity, but it goes beyond number recognition. To become a proficient counter, a child needs to understand one-to-one correspondence (one number for one object) and the principle of cardinality (last number in a series is the total number in that set). For example, if you have three and add two, the total is five without having to start back at one. Cardinality is crucial in moving forward to addition.
Any adult can help develop math concepts in children, beginning at a grass roots level by practicing developmentally-appropriate, playful learning. “Mathemize” everyday experiences to ignite children’s curiosity and respond to questions with easy to relate to examples. Allow children to demonstrate competency and build confidence, by adding movement to increase engagement and a big dose of silliness to boost the fun.
Math skills to develop from toddler through early elementary years
Representation — The use of words, pictures, symbols, and objects that give math meaning in daily life.
Talk: Use a puppet to indicate a one-to-one correspondence with objects.
Activity: Ask child to set the table. Placing a napkin, utensils, or other items on the table for each family member cultivates one-to-one correspondence and cardinality skills.
TODDLER – PRESCHOOL
Number sense — The ability to count forward accurately, and later, backwards.
Activity: Invite child to count collections of things such as erasers, blocks, or small toy animals, then show the counts on paper. Draw the objects or a circle representing each item and place the objects on the respective circle to show an accurate count.
Activity: Use songs to teach counting, addition/subtraction and vocabulary (e.g. sing a rhyme like “Five little birdies, watching others soar. One flew away, then there were four…”).
Game: Number pizzas. Tell child, “I’m a chef and I’m making pizza.” Set red plastic chips on a paper plate and ask “How many pepperonis do I have?” Next, “Can you make your pizza have the same number, or matching pepperonis, as mine?” This game teaches concepts of similarities and differences – the same number can be organized in a different way.
Problem-solving — The ability to think through a problem and recognize there is more than one path to the answer. It means using past knowledge and logical thinking skills to find a solution.
Talk: Use “number talk” to encourage child to reveal their thought process when providing an answer.
Activity: Give child a shape sorter to drop a block inside a shape opening. Urge trial-and-error method to keep trying until the correct fit is discovered.
Spatial Sense — The introduction of shape, size, space, position, direction and movement concepts that become the basis for geometry in upper grades.
Activity/Direction: Give child instructions such as “Step forward and backward” and “Go up the stairs and down the stairs”.
Activity/Shapes: Cut out large shapes from construction paper and ask child to jump or hop on a shape (e.g. “red square”). At tidy-up times, ask child to name shapes as she puts toys away.
Observation/Estimation/Comparison — The ability to compare and guess the size or amount of objects, and demonstrate the meaning of words like more or less, bigger or smaller.
Talk: Ask child, “Do you want the small bagel or the big one?” or “Point to the stack of blocks, books, Legos, etc. that has more.”
Activity: Read a picture book and ask child to identify the biggest and smallest [figures] in the pictures.
Game: How Many?: Put assortment of small toys in a jar, then ask child to count toys and write the number on paper (combine with movement by asking child to run/hop/skip across room to/from jar).
PRESCHOOL – EARLY ELEMENTARY
Measurement — The ability to find the length, height, and weight of an object.
Activity: Bake simple cookies or brownies with child (also incorporates time measurement skills). Bonus: make into different shapes.
Patterns (numbers, shapes, or images that repeat in a logical way) — The ability to predict and understand what comes next, make logical connections, and develop reasoning skills.
Activity: Read-aloud a picture book with repetitive text. Pause to let child fill in the blank and continue the pattern.
Activity: Make patterns with snack foods (e.g. pretzels, raisins, Cheerios) or candy (e.g. Skittles or M&M’s).
Activity: Go on a scavenger hunt looking for patterns in nature (e.g. circular patterns in flowers, rings on tree trunks, or patterns on insects such as ladybugs or butterfly wings).
After observing and reflecting on your child’s thinking process, adjust activities accordingly. For instance, if a child can subitize (recognize quantity without counting by hand), but can’t identify the printed number, try playing a game where objects are labeled with the corresponding number in the set to help your child memorize what the number symbol looks like.
Another way to fuel enthusiasm for math is through literature. At the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute a committee of mathematicians, librarians, teachers, and early childhood experts have selected outstanding books that “succeed in communicating mathematical ideas or problems and also succeed as great books”. They honor books in five age categories annually with the Mathical Book Prize, initiated in 2015. The following list offers Mathical prize winners and others stories to promote math concepts in young children.
The overall goal in teaching math concepts to toddlers and preschoolers is to integrate math into daily activities and make math playful. Help your child discover that math is interesting and fun!
Anderson, Jenny. (2017, November 13). A Stanford professor says we should teach more math in preschool. Quartz Media [website]
Author unknown. (2016, February 25). Help your child develop early math skills. Zero to Three [website]
Berdik, Chris. (2016, July 20). Mix a little math into that bedtime story. The Hechinger Report [newsletter]
Bouffard, Suzanne. (2017). The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children. Penguin Random House. Chapter: Doing the Math, p 73-89
Center for Childhood Creativity. Reimagining School Readiness Toolkit. Bay Area Discovery Museum. [resource guides]
Howes, Katey. (2018, February 3). Ten picture books about observation and perspective by Katey Howes. Nerdy Book Club [blog]
Newhouse, Kara. (2018, March 12). 10 Books to spark a love of math in kids of all ages. MindShift [KQED News program]