I’ve been a math teacher of upper elementary up to Algebra level for many years and have taught in a wide variety of settings. These include public, charter, and private schools. I’ve taught in schools with primarily black students, Latino students, and white students ranging from low socio-economic demographics to affluent populations. Despite this variety, one constant that is always there is students who struggle in math. The root of these struggles, not surprisingly, largely comes down to a lack of foundational math skills. Like anything, if you don’t learn the basics well from the start, the complex skills are much more difficult down the road.
Promote Math Like We Promote Literacy
It’s common to hear of the importance of literacy for children. For example, libraries promote the 1000 books before kindergarten initiative. Generally, it seems that parents know of the importance of reading to their child. It’s a pretty typical part of the toddler’s daily routine when you speak to parents. But, when do you really see promotion of or hear parents discuss numeracy (basic number sense) as a routine for toddlers? Certainly not nearly as often, if at all, in a child’s early years. I would argue though, that numeracy is just as important, or certainly important enough, to garner a lot more attention than it gets.
If the thought of building numeracy in your child is now stressing you out, rest assured that it need not be. In my opinion, it’s quite simple and is more a mindset than any formal actions you need to take. Below, I provide key tips and natural ways for developing numeracy in your child. You can and should start doing some of these with toddlers as young as 2. I promise that if you train yourself to emphasize numeracy with your little one, your child will be well prepared for math entering school.
Count, Count, and Count Some More!
Children naturally develop counting skills, but like anything, practice strengthens this skill. When you’re playing, driving in the car, out at the store, ask your child to count things. It’s simple but also engaging for your child. Don’t forget to model and count backwards too! The goal is to develop a number association where the child understands that there is a one more / one less relationship between 4 and 5.
The Power of Place Value and 10s
As a teacher, one of the most telling signs a student is weak in math is an inability to work effectively with tens. Our place value is a base-10 system, meaning that any place value is 10x larger or smaller than its adjacent place value. In other words, when you have 10 of a particular place value, you can trade it in for 1 of the next larger place value (10 ones can be traded for 1 ten; 10 tens can be traded for 1 hundred).
Of course, toddlers may be a bit young to truly grasp place value yet, but you’re just setting the foundation. When you play, try and group and separate amounts of 10. For example, if you count out objects to 12, instead of having one pile, count to 10 and set that aside and put 11 and 12 as a separate pile. This begins to reinforce 10 as something unique. As children get older, they begin to instinctively see 10 and 10 as 20, just as easily as seeing 1 and 1 as 2.
I want to elaborate on the above point a bit. Part of what is so important in separating 12 as 10 and 2 is for children to internalize the value of 12. It starts to get a bit too “mathy” if I start to delve into why this is so important. Just trust me that this is a critical difference in strong versus weaker math students. Let me offer a quick example. In many languages, such as my native language of Chinese, the word for 12 is literally, “ten, two”. The word for 20 is “two, ten”. The word for 112 is “one hundred, ten, two”. You probably get the idea. So, the value of the number is built into the language.
Such is not the case in English. The word, “twelve”, has no indication of the number’s value. Neither does “twenty”. In a way, English speaking children are at a math disadvantage from the very start just learning how to say the numbers. That’s why it’s extra important to help children see “twelve” as 10 and 2. The Wall Street Journal has a great article about this if you’re interested in reading more.
Shapes and Patterns Everywhere!
Just like I spoke about the importance of counting earlier, this applies to shapes and patterns too. Make a point to identify shapes and patterns as you go about your day-to-day. As I wrote before, a lot of this is a mindset. It’s pretty natural to point out colors to children. It’s common to see a parent point to something red and ask, “Sophie, what color is that?” Then we cheer for Sophie when she says, “Red.”
Why not do the same with shapes? It’s not that we don’t do it at all, but rather it’s not as emphasized. When you’re driving or taking a walk with your children, make a point to identify shapes. And not just the basic circles and rectangles. Why not work in pentagons, hexagons, and octagons? There are many of them out there, and no, it’s not too hard. I’ve had many 7th graders unable to identify a hexagon on a quiz, but my 5 year old can identify one. Children can identify and pronounce brontosaurus and triceratops, but octagon is too hard? Again, it’s a mindset.
Recognizing patterns, even very basic ones, is essential in developing math skills. It takes little effort to work in patterns to your everyday actions. For example, you can find patterns with your children in clothes, decorations like Christmas lights, and architecture. Patterns are prevalent in so much of math from more basic skills like the multiplication table to more complex algebra skills like functions. So, an early ability to connect pattern relationships sets children up for future success.
Shopping and Interacting with Money
I highly encourage parents to bring their children with them when shopping. Exposing them to money builds so many essential math concepts. Decimals, fractions, comparison of amounts (greater versus less), adding and subtracting, and financial literacy just to name some. My son has continually been grocery shopping with me since he was 3. It’s amazing the math skills he’s picked up just from these experiences. Make sure to let your children be part of the process. Let them help open the freezer doors and put things in the cart. The more involved they are, they more engaged they will be.
As a math teacher, money can be so helpful in explaining concepts such as decimals, unit rates, and slope / rate of change. But, it’s only helpful when the student has a good background with money.
Make Time for Time
Like the concept of money I just wrote about, time is also so useful in developing key math concepts. At younger ages, time helps children understand the association that numbers have values relative to one another. For example, 10 minutes is a longer and larger amount than 5 minutes. As children get older, time helps develop more advanced concepts such as an understanding of fractions (1/2 an hour), and exposure to non-base-10 systems (60 minutes in an hour; 24 hours in a day).
And don’t neglect the analog clock! In our increasingly digital age, it’s easy for kids not to learn to read an analog clock. There are so many good skills that come with reading an analog clock though. An analog clock is a natural way to see fractions, skip count by 5s, and compare numbers (5 is greater than 4). None of this can be seen on a digital clock.
Remember, It’s a Mindset
As I’ve said throughout this post, building children’s math skills is a mindset. None of the tips and suggestions written here require formal preparation or require parents to be great at math. They’re just actions you can take going about your typical day. It’s about prioritizing numeracy the way we prioritize literacy.
There are so many more examples of daily activities beyond what I’ve written here. If you’re looking for more examples, check out this great article, Help Your Child Develop Early Math Skills.
If you enjoyed this post, found it useful, or want to share your thoughts, please feel free to do so in the comment section below. You may also be interested in my related post, Prepare Your Toddler To Be Strong At Math.