Learning Math with Your Preschoolers: Fun in the Talking and Playing

Yen ThieuYen Thieu, an EDC research associate, brings a strong background in early childhood education to her work on the Games for Young Mathematicians research project, an initiative in which she is coordinating a large-scale data collection process, managing extensive datasets, and providing support to data analysis. Currently, Yen is leading three large teams of data collectors who are conducting child assessments in early math knowledge and skills with over 700 preschoolers in Head Start centers. She is also spearheading the communication and dissemination efforts of the project, as well as contributing to the writing of reports and the design of professional development materials. In this post, Yen draws on her experience as a researcher and mother of young children and shares some thoughts about the key role that parents and early childhood teachers can play in promoting children’s long-term successful mathematics learning, as well as some practical tips for parents and teachers.

Last Tuesday morning, my four-year-old Kyle and I had a great chat in the kitchen. I was hurrying around getting Kyle, his one-year-old baby brother, and myself ready to head out the door for school and work.

“All right, Kyle! Please put your coat and shoes on,” I said. We’re leaving the house in 2 minutes!”

“OK, mommy,” Kyle said, as he pushed one arm into the sleeve of his red coat, “Is Alex coming to school with me today?” 

“Yes, Kyle. Today is Tuesday, so Alex is going to school with you!” I replied absent-mindedly, as I looked for Kyle’s scarf.

"Yay!” Kyle sang out, as he did a little happy dance. "Oh, yeah, I remember now! Yesterday he stayed home with grandma, so today he’s going to school with me. Then tomorrow he’s gonna stay home with grandma, then he’s coming with me again after tomorrow. Right, Mommy?”

“Right! You got it, Kyle!” I called out, as I ran into the hall to get the baby’s mittens.

“So...” Kyle thought out loud. “One day Alex stays home, then he goes to school with me the next day, then he stays home, then he goes to school with me, then he stays home again the day after. That’s a pattern!”

Just like that, Kyle put a big proud smile on my face, and I made sure he saw the smile. “That IS a pattern, Kyle!” I stopped for a second ruffling his hair, “What else can you think of that is a pattern?” We kept chatting about patterns as I picked up the baby and my bag, and Kyle got his lunch box and his little brother’s lunch box too. 

We don’t always have such a smooth beginning to our day, nor do we always manage to have conversations about math. But I do know that it’s important for my kids to be exposed to these mathematical concepts at an early age. A longitudinal research study by Dr. Greg Duncan at University of California-Irvine and colleagues (2007) reported that early math skills were the strongest predictor of children’s later school success (followed by reading skills).

While early language and literacy skills typically receive attention from early childhood teachers, parents, and policy makers, early mathematics has not always had the attention it deserves. One reason may be that parents and early childhood teachers feel a bit hesitant helping children when it comes to math. Some adults might have anxiety related to math due to their own negative experiences. Others might fear they will say something wrong or confuse children. For these reasons and many more, it can be easy to shy away from talking about math with children. But, helping young children acquire basic early math skills does not have to be an intimidating task.

Every day, you can weave many of the concepts that underlie complex mathematical thinking into simple activities. At the store, ask your child to help you count items you need to buy. Don’t forget to encourage them to say the total number after counting, this helps your child to practice knowing how many in all, an important concept called cardinality. On a walk, play an “I-spy” game. As you point out shapes to help children learn about their names and characteristics, ask children questions like, “How many sides does it have?” and “Is it curved or does it have straight edges?” By asking questions like these, we are helping children notice the attributes of shapes. For example, a triangle has 3 sides but a square has 4.

Boy with Triangle Cards

While folding laundry, have your little helpers sort out categories of clothing items. Ask them, “Can you find all the socks?” “Can you sort the socks into two groups—big socks and little socks?” Then you could turn the task into a matching game. “Can you match the ones that are the same? How do you know they are the same?” You can also help your child compare during this time, “Let’s compare! Look: Mommy’s shirt is bigger than your shirt! Your shirt is smaller.” This also helps children to notice the attributes of objects such as size and color.

Once you’ve started, you will see that opportunities like these are everywhere and rather easy to do. All you need to do is start, and we can help. Our Young Mathematicians project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Heising-Simons Foundation, is in our third year. Our team has designed a set of fun and engaging mathematics games that foster preschoolers’ mathematical understanding of beginning geometry, number sense and operations, and patterning. In our professional development program, we also guide teachers to use new and familiar storybooks as a way to introduce and talk about math concepts. This has the added benefit of not separating math into yet another task on their long to-do lists. Families receive cute “math mini-books” and materials for math games, as well as quick tips to fit in mini math talks with their kids (like my morning kitchen chat with Kyle), all of which are meant for busy working parents. You can find all of our recommendations of games, books, and free print-ables on EDC’s Young Mathematicians website.

With one talk or one game at a time, teachers and parents can help change the landscape of early mathematical learning and school readiness and success. Over time, as you start paying more attention to math in your daily lives, you might find that your little ones will do the same. Now my son sees math in more of his world, even when it could mean a little more mess in the house sometimes.

“Nooooo!!! Mommy, why are you messing up my shapes?” Kyle cries out in a high-pitched voice and gives me an elaborate frown.

I stand up from where I’m crouched down, tidying up the kitchen floor. “What shapes, Kyle? I’m cleaning up the floor. These pieces of paper are too small. Alex can put them in his mouth.”

“No! See, mommy? I cut these papers out because I’m trying to make 2 big squares! You broke my squares! I’m mad at you! Argh!” Kyle stomps his foot in frustration.

After pausing for a second, I suggest to Kyle that he could bring his square project to the living room while I keep the baby in the kitchen with me. I watch as Kyle spreads his project out on the living room floor, and I look over at him composing his squares, with pride and joy. I might not be able to hold back asking him some questions about his shapes!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 11:15am