High-quality early math experiences are critical for young kids. According to a growing body of research, the strongest predictor of a child’s academic success is related to their understanding of foundational mathematics learned in the first six years of life. Similarly, researchers from the University of California, Irvine found that kindergarten achievement in mathematics predicts academic success in eighth grade.
While math learning is imperative, you don’t need to force your little one to complete endless math worksheets. “Math is a tool for problem-solving, and the world around us is rich with mathematical problems to engage young children,” says Helen Hadani, Head of Research at the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. “The best learning happens in the context of the real world.”
Whether you’re building with blocks or walking through the market shopping for groceries, there are many ways you can incorporate high-quality math learning experiences into your child’s everyday life. Here are a few tactics:
1. Incorporate Math Talk
“In the early years, we need to build our children’s mathematical skills by giving them the words to describe mathematical thinking,” explains Hadani, an early childhood development expert. You can engage your child with math by asking them to count, but also by having conversations where you compare sizes or quantities. Model ways that language lets you communicate different but related concepts, for example, something that is large can be big, heavy, tall, many, etc. There are opportunities all around you to use mathematical language with your kids—try to use math talk with your child when you’re at a baseball game, baking a birthday cake, or beading a necklace.
2. Focus on Conceptual Math
Math is highly abstract. Don’t just focus on counting, make sure your child understands the concept of quantity. For example, a preschooler may easily count up to 10, but that doesn’t mean they understand that nine is more than eight. Don’t just ask your child to repeat back a string of memorized words, says Hadani. Instead, talk with your child about quantity with prompts like “Use your fingers to show me all the different ways we can make five,” or “I brought three apples with us to the park, but there are six of us here. How can we cut them up so everyone gets a fair amount?”
3. Explore Shapes on a Conceptual Level
Avoid just asking your child to remember names for shapes. Try to help your child understand shapes on a deeper level, for example, how shapes fit together, or the difference between two and three-dimensional shapes. Shift away from asking questions that only have one right answer like “What’s that shape?” to open-ended questions like “Let’s look for triangles on the car ride to the market.” This helps children develop deeper conceptual understanding of math concepts by connecting abstract words to the world around them.
To learn more about school readiness, read Reimagining School Readiness: A Position Paper with Key Findings by the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.