Most of us probably have a good idea what it takes to get our young children to love reading. Snuggling up with a favorite book at bedtime, for example, sends a clear message about the value of reading. But what about a love of math?
For many parents, it’s not so obvious how to help young children appreciate math — especially if they don’t enjoy it themselves or feel their skills in the subject are lacking. Yet parents are a powerful influence on how children feel about math. Feelings? Yes, research is clear that children’s mindset — their beliefs about what math is and who can do math well — helps determine their math achievement. So, if you’re a parent and don’t consider yourself a math person, there are still ways you can help your child succeed.
First, try putting aside any pressure you feel to be their math teacher, and instead, think of yourself as a math cheerleader! With that perspective, following are five strategies you can use to cheer your child on and encourage their love of math.
The concept of being a “math person” — or not — is a myth. But even if you don’t identify as someone who likes or is good at math right now, you can still model curiosity about the subject. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can ask good questions. Two great questions to ask your kids: “What do you notice?” and, “What do you see?”
Look with a math lens
We use lenses all the time to help us see things differently: to improve our vision, to shade our eyes from the sun, to magnify microscopic organisms and to watch a 3-D movie. In the same way, we can use a math lens to help our children see the world differently. For example, you and your child might look at how eggs in a carton are lined up in two rows of six. You might notice the patterns on a checkerboard, or the symmetry of a building, shapes in the tile floor, height of a tree, rhythm of a song, etc. By pointing these things out, it won’t take long for your child to recognize the ways math is present everywhere they look.
Picture books, too, are a great invitation to look at the world with a math lens. Visit your public library and check out these award-winning Mathical Prize books.
Talk about math
You’ve got chores to do: grocery shopping, washing dishes, doing laundry, straightening up the house. These tasks all offer opportunities to help your child sort, count, make comparisons and reason spatially. The Early Math Collaborative at Erikson Institute offers many practical ideas for math at home. Remember that language and math skills develop together. Take advantage of small moments to talk about math ideas as you move through your day together — think of it as the curriculum of life!
Children learn best through play. Games provide children with enjoyable math practice skills while also developing their logical, strategic thinking. Simple card games such as Uno and Memory offer opportunities for matching and comparing. Path-based board games like Parcheesi or Chutes and Ladders, in which children use dice or spinners to advance spaces, develop a sense of number magnitude. Strategy games like Connect Four and Mancala require children to plan their problem-solving by thinking a step ahead. Puzzles are also great for spatial reasoning. The blog Games for Young Minds is full of game suggestions and reviews to help you plan your next family game night that encourages your child’s love of math.
Making mistakes and trying to figure things out is part of doing math. How you respond when you or your child makes an error can send the message that math is a process and that success comes from effort. As children move through school, there’s bound to be some struggle learning math — and you may be in the position to help with homework. In these situations, pause for a moment before offering assistance. This sends the message that it’s okay for them to not understand right away. As parents, we have to develop a stronger stomach for some temporary frustration. This is how your child will learn problem solving and perseverance — both crucial skills for life that math teaches particularly well.
Jeanine O'Nan Brownell is the mother of three children. She works at Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative and partners with school districts, childcare centers, and agencies to design programs of professional learning for preK-3rd grade teachers.