Hey readers! This is Suzanne, co-owner of The Happy Lark. Many people don't know that in my previous career, I was a high school math teacher. So although early childhood mathematics education was not my specialty, teaching high school definitely gave me a unique frame of reference for the skills that are essential for students to succeed in math. Since having my own kids, I've done more to educate myself on best practices for preparing young children for a positive math experience at school. I'm writing this post to give parents some easy, manageable, and important tips for hopefully making your child's math journey an enjoyable one, in kindergarten and beyond.
Here's a little math humor from my former pre-cal students-- snapped this picture while I was teaching and one day overdue with my now six year-old.
First things first. What is numeracy?? Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers. Basically, literacy, but with numbers. On to my top five super-important tips for encouraging numeracy in your home:
1. As a parent, convey a positive attitude toward math: I'm putting this at number one for a reason. It's SO important. As a math teacher, it makes us cringe. We hear Mom or Dad say "Well, I was never any good at math anyway, so I'm not surprised that little Johnny is struggling." STOP it already!! Even if you struggled in math, by normalizing it, you are setting a low expectation for little Johnny (have you ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It's a real thing!). Children are very aware of their parents, and even small negative comments will be noticed. "I'll let your dad figure out the tip, I can't add without my calculator." "Math was never my thing." "My mom brain can't even add anymore." Seriously things I hear. Even if you feel this way, and even if math isn't your strength, keep these thoughts to yourself. Your kiddos will probably be none the wiser, and they won't enter school with the pre-set expectation that they too will struggle with math.
A hundreds board is a great, hands-on way to increase mathematical understanding. Kids love to work with the tiles, and they make discovering the natural patterns in our number system easy and fun. This one from Learning Resources also comes with a great activity booklet.
2. Remember that first and foremost, math is ALL about problem-solving: Students who excel in math all have one thing in common. They are excellent problem solvers. Problem-solving is a skill, and while some people are surely more predisposed to it than others, it can definitely be learned. So what does this look like in our little ones? How do we foster an aptitude for problem-solving? We give them ample opportunities to explore, play, and experiment ON THEIR OWN. That's right... this one should be easy! Do you see your toddler struggling to figure out a toy? Great! Let him struggle. Is your five year-old struggling to find a puzzle piece when clearly it's right there in front of her?! Hold your tongue and let her figure it out. Problem-solving is primarily about resiliency. If method #1 didn't work, try method #2. If kids don't embrace this "If at first you don't succeed, try try again" attitude, math WILL become more of a struggle. As students learn higher levels of math, the path to the correct answer will not always be clear. It will take trial and error, and the seeds of that mindset are sown in early childhood.
3. Consider numeracy like you consider literacy: We all know that literacy is SO important to young children. And, it is! SO important! You probably make very deliberate decisions based on encouraging your child's literacy. You might even read books or blog posts on literacy. Chances are you have designed your home in a way that fosters a literacy-rich environment and gives your child many opportunities to interact with literacy on a daily basis. So here's my challenge to you: consider numeracy like you consider literacy. Do a little research on age-appropriate numeracy activities for your child (I promise, pinterest is overflowing with simple ideas for this. I'll link a few at the end of this post). It doesn't need to be super time-consuming or complicated, but if you have a handful of quick and easy activities, toys, or even conversations (I see you have TWO legos; how many more would you need to add to get to FIVE legos?) in your back pocket, you're so much more likely to reach for them.
Giving your kids a chance to bake will probably be messy and not too much fun the first time. But, they will love it, it's teaching them a life-long skill, and it provides many opportunities for mathematical reasoning.
4. Make math reasoning skills a part of daily life: Look for opportunities to have mathematical conversations with your children, even in small ways. Some examples: "I would like you to pick up ten more toys. After that we can take a break." "Let's cut the sandwich in half. That means into two equal pieces." "You have five dollars. That toy is seven dollars. Do you have enough money?" Counting and understanding money was our main mathematical focus this summer for my six year-old. In Kindergarten, they talked about the value of each coin (accompanied with a fun little song that she still sings: "The value of a a dime is.... ten cents!"). It's such a great tool for increasing mathematical fluency, because not only is it a practical skill, but it teaches counting by ones, fives, tens, and twenty-fives. She'll be counting back your change to you at THL in no time! Cooking is another great natural setting for mathematical conversations: "We need 1/3 of a cup of sugar. See how 1/3 of a cup is less than 1/2 of a cup?" Even if your kiddos don't yet know what one-third means, they are totally capable of making small observations like that (and with any luck, they won't be like these people).
Numeracy at home doesn't have to be complicated or take a long time. This is a simple activity I do with my six year-old. She picks out a certain number of coins from her piggy bank and adds up the value. I check it for her, and if she is incorrect, we find the misunderstanding and talk about it.
5. Find games that encourage mathematical thinking: Most of us probably have a bedtime ritual that involves reading books-- and that's great!! But what if we picked one night a week to do something a little different? Like maybe play a game with mathematical reasoning at its core? I got this idea from a friend (Maria Ciszek, whose beautiful pictures often brighten up our website and social media feeds) whose six year-old daughter often plays Uno with her dad before going to bed. I LOVE it! Games are definitely a different and positive way to connect with your kiddos, and something that I think a lot of parents don't do. But-- does Uno really count as a "math game"? I say yes. It obviously helps with number recognition, but beyond that, Uno is a strategy game. Going back to tip #2, after playing enough rounds of Uno, your kiddo will probably start to notice little things: "I need to play a seven. I have a red seven and a green seven in my hand. But the red seven is my ONLY red card. Maybe I should save it for later in case I really need a red." It's easy to see how one day this could morph into "I'm trying to simplify this trigonometric expression. I know I need the cos(x) on the bottom to cancel out with something on the top. Maybe I should try to re-write the top in terms of cos(x)"). I'll list a few other math reasoning games below, but really anything with strategy is great. The numbers in Uno are just a plus!
We love the game Tiny Polka Dot! One of the objectives is to present numbers in many different formats. It comes with an instruction booklet with several different games (so you can increase the difficulty level as your child's understanding grows).
And that's my top five! Any tips or thoughts?? Comment below! Good luck on making your home a little more math-centered.
-Suzanne, THL co-owner and lover of math
Resources for easy math activities:
Here's our Pinterest board (follow us!) for Early Childhood Math Activities. We looked at these and made sure they are worth the click.