Children and math skills – an important partnership

Young children who have an excitement about math concepts at an early age often excel in the classroom at tasks that include measuring, counting, sorting and problem solving.

Teaching math concepts can be wrapped into most of the things that caregivers are already doing.
Teaching math concepts can be wrapped into most of the things that caregivers are already doing.

Having knowledge of basic math concepts is a “strong predictor of later achievement” for children who are entering school, explained the Society for Research in Child Development. Some experts believe that knowledge of math concepts may even be a more important predictor of school success than early reading ability. Math skills are needed for nearly every task we perform, and jobs are requiring a higher math proficiency than ever before; math skills become more important when we acknowledge that we live in a technology-driven society.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have issued a joint position statement that states, “High-quality, challenging, and accessible mathematics education for 3- to 6-year-old children is a vital foundation for future mathematics learning.

The pressure is on for parents and caregivers of young children – adults who are already over-booked and stressed trying to teach social skills, read at least 30 minutes a day, work on school readiness requirements, provide healthy play, keep children safe and get a toddler to eat nutritious food now have one more thing to add to their responsibilities: math skills! Teaching math concepts, however, can be an easy task wrapped into most of the things that caregivers are already doing.

Math is all around us. Think about the day of a typical American preschool as they play. Most children use math concepts without even knowing it. Children sort crayons, count toys, stack things, fill and pour water or sand. We play matching games, talk about big and little, tall and short, and make patterns with little cars (example: “two cars, one truck, two cars, one truck, etc.”). These are just a few of the skills that are needed to build a strong foundation in math concepts.

The United States Department of Education encourages three easy goals for you to set that can help you challenge your child and expand his math skills:

Look for math everywhere.
Discuss measurements as you prepare a recipe, compare prices on cereal boxes at the store when you’re shopping with your children. Have a preschooler find a particular brand of cereal on sale and point out that the ounces on the box has to match the coupon that you have. Count the pieces of a cake and talk about how you get more pieces if you cut them smaller. Discuss sporting events and talk about points. Play games that require counting spaces to move ahead. You probably are already doing many of these things and just didn’t notice.

Make math fun.
Many adults don’t look at mathematics as a good time. Children, on the other hand, seem to enjoy playing with numbers. Children learn by doing and the more they do, the more they learn. Divide a napkin into fourths with a marker or crayon and have a preschooler put one animal cracker in each space for the afternoon treat when entertaining his friends. Count houses that are blue. Have children sort socks into piles of big socks or small socks. Count how many clothes pins it takes to hand up three t-shirts on the close line if each shirt needs two pins.

Ask lots of questions.
“I wonder how many cookies I can fit in this container?” Use open-ended questions – those that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” response – that help children think about solving a problem using math. “If we have to be at Grandma’s at 2:30 and it takes about 15 minutes to get there, what time do you think we should leave?” “We only have 6 chairs for the table including our spare one. How many children do you think you can have at your Birthday if everyone needs a seat?”

Children are natural-born problem solvers. They will learn easiest and best if we encourage them to find some answers on their own. It isn’t necessary to spend a lot of money on workbooks and mathematic flash cards. Everyday life can provide all the tools you’ll need to encourage math skills.

For more articles on child development, academic success and parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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