Is Math the Secret to School Success or Simply a Piece of the Puzzle?

Researchers are currently looking at whether working on math can help children develop self-regulation skills, such as controlling impulses, improving working memory, and paying attention appropriately, which are skills that are important not only in all school subjects, but also in other contexts, such as interpersonal relationships.

University of Denver Professor Doug Clements created Building Blocks, a new math curriculum that is currently being tested in many preschools. He states that most teachers in this country “…think of math as just skills. They tend to think of it as a quiet activity.” Instead, he wants math to be just the opposite, so that children are “bumping into mathematics at every turn.”

In your preschooler’s world, math is indeed everywhere, and you can help your child “bump into” math in many places outside the classroom, as well. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Transitions go more smoothly with a five-minute warning. Use a timer or an hourglass. Repeat when there is one minute left. Count down the last 10 seconds out loud.
  • Calendars are a useful tool for organizing upcoming events, such as marking off the number of days to a birthday, a trip, or anything else your child is looking forward to. Count out the remaining number of days to an event together.
  • Point out shapes everywhere you go. Design a treasure hunt to look for circles, squares, and triangles around the house. When driving or having to wait somewhere, count how many of a particular shape you see. Ask your child how she knows an object is round and not square. Take a walk and look for shapes in nature.
  • Any time you get a chance, count out loud together or take turns. Count the number of steps it takes to get to the car or how many blocks your child is picking up. On a similar note, point out comparisons whenever you can, such as “That drink is bigger than this one. I know because… Can you find something that is smaller than this one?”
  • When you are reading, look at the number of pages in a book. Talk about the shape and size. If a character figures out something using math skills, point it out.
  • Children enjoy hearing and using long words such as “symmetrical” and “mathematics.” Point out things that are symmetrical and help your child practice saying the word.
  • Use familiar objects to illustrate a number (“We have four plates on the table because we have four people eating dinner tonight”), parts of the whole (“We ate half of the pizza already”), or simple addition or subtraction (“You had five slices of orange, and you ate two, so now you have…how many left?”).
  • Young children enjoy being trusted with small responsibilities around the house. Let them match socks from the laundry, fold small towels or pillowcases in half, and then in half again.
  • You do not need fancy toys or computer games to build math skills. Puzzles teach size, shape, proportion, comparison, learning from visual cues, and enhance dexterity. Blocks enhance counting skills, teach size and shape comparison, and allow children to estimate. Stack and store blocks by size, shape, color, or with a picture of a shape on the container for your child to match. Use different sizes of cups to compare, measure, and predict.
  • Gardening provides an opportunity for skills such as measuring growth, comparing, predicting, reasoning, and counting. Measure soil and water, and record growth every few days. Add the dates for watering on the calendar.
  • Math can be used in so many different ways to make art. Cut out shapes and see how many different things can be made from each shape or from combining them. Predict what will happen if you fill a cup of paint with half of one color and half of another? Count out 10 (or 20 or 50) pieces of dried macaroni or cereal to glue onto paper and see what can be made from them. Ask your child to draw three dogs of different colors or four birds of different sizes.
  • Cooking and baking include so many math lessons. Fine motor skill development, scientific observation, following steps in a recipe, quantitative thinking, measuring, and more – cooking has it all! Count the number of ingredients (another great word), the tools you need, and the number of people you want to serve. Note the shape of the pan and the bowl. Talk about the oven temperature and set the timer. Count as you stir and note what ½ a cup plus ½ a cup equals.

The above are just a few ideas of how to introduce young kids to math concepts while focusing on play and having fun.

Judy Medoff, M.A., recently retired after 25 years of serving as the founding director of The Price Family Preschool in San Diego, CA. During this time, she taught weekly parent participation classes and developed parenting workshops on many topics. She currently works as an independent consultant for families and schools. Judy lives with her husband in San Diego and visits her two grown children in the Bay Area quite often. She would love to hear your stories and questions:

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