Your preschooler can count to 50, maybe even 100. But does your child know what five means? It turns out that understanding the “fiveness” of five is far more important for a solid foundation in math than the ability to recite a string of numbers in the right order. And you can keep building this foundation all summer long.
Since 2007, the Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative has been helping teachers discover ways to improve math instruction for young children. Substitute “parents” for “teachers,” and our first “big idea” involves having your young children sort the laundry or the silverware. The big lesson to be learned from chores like these is that any collection can be sorted in more than one way. So while we sort by light versus dark before the wash, we might sort by clothing type — socks, shirts, pants — afterward. All with the same exact items.
It’s not conventional math. It doesn’t require memorization. But it helps young children understand the concept of a category and gives them experience in creating sets. Because you can’t count apples, for instance, until you’ve figured out which are apples and which are bananas.
When it comes to counting, it’s one thing to understand that three comes after two and before four. That’s the skill in a “count to 50” task. But what’s more meaningful is to understand that three is one more than two, and one less than four. It’s known as the cardinal meaning of a number. And it’s easier for children to learn when we couple a counting process with a total quantity.
For example, let’s say there are five stairs leading to your porch. It’s not enough to count “one, two, three, four, five.” To help toddlers quickly pick up the meaning of the numbers, conclude with, “See? There are five stairs.” This ties the sequence to the quantity, giving your child a chance to construct a meaningful understanding of five. Taking this up another level of difficulty would be this scenario: Say the 10 townhomes on your block all look the same and all have five stairs leading to the porch. Now ask your child, if an 11th townhome were to be built, how many stairs do you think it would have? This is pattern recognition.
What’s so powerful about it is that it enables children to anticipate what comes next. It allows for predictability in kids’ lives. And they love it. It’s why toddlers want the same song sung over and over again and love books that repeat a rhyme but add one new twist on each page. Patterns help kids feel confident and safe because they know what’s going to happen next. And in math, pattern recognition is the first step to algebraic thinking.
Even when your child is on summer break, the day is full of simple ways that families can inject math into a meaningful activity. Just remember that it’s not just the counting that matters — it’s the patterns and the sets that the numbers create.
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