Children are naturally curious and have an inborn ability to make connections. From birth they begin learning the concepts of language and math. While it may be easier to observe a child learning language as they begin to speak and put sentences together, at the same time they are also discovering the ideas of pattern, shape, size, and spatial relationships like up, down, and across—all of which are the foundations of math.
Parents and caregivers can help their children develop a strong base on which to build their math understanding by engaging them in age-appropriate activities. As Audrey Martínez-Gudapakkam, an associate researcher at TERC who evaluates K-12 STEM education programs and develops programs to engage Spanish-speaking families in STEM learning, explains: “To help children be ready to learn in kindergarten and beyond, they need repeated concrete experiences in daily life to develop math vocabulary and the experiences that will support their understanding.”
These activities do not need to be structured learning times and do not require expensive materials. Playtime, mealtime, shopping, and helping around the house all offer opportunities for children to get hands-on experience with math. Talking with kids about what they see and do is one of the best ways to raise awareness of math concepts.
Here are some ideas for babies and toddlers.
From birth, babies are discovering their hands and fingers; learning how to roll over, sit up, and crawl; watching as they are diapered, bathed, and dressed; and gaining the ability to feed themselves. All of these activities offer ways to talk with your child about math. As you spend time with your baby while shopping, taking a walk, or playing with them, point out shapes, colors, and spatial relationships.
- You are crawling so fast across the floor!
- I will pick you up and put you in the high chair.
- You have two hands. Let’s wash one hand. Then we wash the other hand. One, two!
- You have one bowl and one spoon.
Shape, Size, and Measurement
- Look at this big, round ball!
- The front of the cereal box is a rectangle.
Toddlers are excited to join in on what adults are doing! Use that energy to engage your child in exploring math—and get a little help around the house! Your child will gain invaluable hands-on experience that helps make otherwise abstract concepts concrete.
- Make up a movement pattern and have your child follow along: step, step, hop. Step, hop, step. Have your child make up a pattern.
- Have children point out patterns on their clothing.
- When coming in from outside, ask children to put their shoes on the ground or a shelf below.
- While cleaning, ask children to put books on a shelf above and a toy in the bin or box.
Shape, Size, and Measurement
- Take a walk in your neighborhood and play “I Spy” with shapes or colors.
- As your child builds a tower with blocks or recycled boxes, talk about small, medium, and large blocks or boxes. Talk about tall and taller, short and shorter towers.
Activities like the ones above and talking with children at all ages will make a big difference in their perceptions of math, their joy in doing math, and their readiness for school. For more discussion on math for young children and ideas on activities you can do with your child, visit the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website.
In our next blog post, we talk about what you can do to help older children (K-1) develop a love for math that will take them far.