Play! The Perfect Way to Build Little Math Minds
Being a parent is hard. The decisions we make as parents are never-ending and at times can have a lasting impact on our children. We know it is important for our kids to get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, learn to be kind and compassionate, and read books on a regular basis. But what do we do, as parents, to help develop mathematical thinking in our kids from a young age?
As a math specialist and curriculum coordinator, that is a question I am frequently asked by parents. The best answer to the question is to play with your child. As Dan Finkel, math educator and entrepreneur said, "What books are to reading, play is to mathematics. And a home filled with blocks and puzzles and games and play is a home where mathematical thinking can flourish."
According to research, the greatest early predictor of whether children will be successful in later mathematics is spatial reasoning, NOT knowing numbers or math facts as some people may originally guess. The good news is there are so many fun, easy ways to help your child develop spatial reasoning skills!
Anything related to examining and describing shapes (both two and three dimensional), exploring how to compose and decompose shapes, maneuvering an object in space, and figuring out how much space is needed to cover or fill an object supports spatial reasoning. This is where building with blocks or Legos, fitting different objects into different containers, and good-old-fashioned puzzles are a perfect fit (pun intended).
Things like shape sorters for younger children and games like Blokus for older kids are perfect tools for supporting spatial reasoning, but don’t feel like you need to buy things to do this! Do you have different sized pots and pans or storage containers at home? Perfect. Let your little one stack, maneuver, and fill these different sized containers. Allowing your child to explore and problem solve like this starts to develop the flexible thinking necessary for critical thinking about higher level math tasks later in life. When you’re out for a walk, go for a shapes scavenger hunt. As they get older and more verbal, you can ask your child to describe shapes and compare them by size or orientation.
While spatial reasoning is a critical component of a child’s early math learning, this doesn’t mean you can’t do other types of math with your child. Sorting is a great activity to develop relational thinking in young children. Ask your child to sort socks out of the laundry basket by color, or even have them pair up each set of matching socks. Have them put those seashells they found on the beach into groups based on size, shape, or color. Matching games are also a lot of fun for the whole family to play together!
Counting activities are also easy to integrate into every day routines, though remember it is important to develop one-to-one correspondence when counting, meaning your child should actually be showing you he/she understands what the number represents by pointing to an object or physically touching the object once (and only once!) as he/she counts. Often times young children tend to memorize their numbers in order without actually having a conceptual understanding of what the numbers mean. So if you are reading a book before bed, your child can count the birds in the picture on the page by pointing to each bird as he/she counts it aloud. Playing a board game is another great way to develop one-to-one correspondence with counting since your child must count each individual space as the game piece is moved.
Most importantly, remember to have fun while playing with your child. Show your children that just as reading is a joyful activity, math is too!
For more specific ideas, feel free to check out a blog post I wrote earlier this year titled “Helping Your Child Understand Our World Through Math”. Another great resource is Kent Haine’s website Games for Young Minds, and you can even sign up for his weekly newsletter to get a new math-related game idea sent to your inbox each week. You may also find the article “Why Early Math is Just as Important as Early Reading” helpful if you are interested in further reading.