Early Math Matters: A Guide for Parents of Preschoolers
By Kristin Stanberry

As the parent of a preschooler, you probably enjoy experiencing the world through your child’s eyes (and hands and feet!) as he or she explores and learns with great enthusiasm. And as your child’s first teacher, you can start teaching the basics of reading, writing, and math. Giving preschoolers a solid foundation in early math literacy is critical to their future academic success, not to mention how important it is to their day-to-day functioning. This is especially true given the increased demands of the math curriculum in our elementary schools today. If your child attends preschool, you can expect to see greater emphasis placed on teaching early math as preschools ramp up to prepare students for elementary school math.

What do you need to know and do to help your preschooler learn about math? To help you get started, we’ll explain how preschoolers learn about the many dimensions of math so you can build on that .You’ll learn what questions to ask your child’s preschool about their math program and instruction. We’ll suggest some fun and educational math activities and games to do with your preschooler. And finally, we’ll explain how to partner with preschool teachers to make sure your child is on track and experiences math as being “real” and useful throughout the day — at school, at home, and while at play.

How preschoolers learn the many aspects of math

Most preschoolers, even without guidance from adults, are naturally interested in math as it exists in the world around them. They learn math best by engaging in dynamic, hands-on games and projects. Preschoolers love to ask questions and play games that involve the many aspects of math. The table below lists the key aspects of preschool math, along with simple games and activities you can use to help your child learn them.

Math Aspect Games and activities
Number sense Count food items at snack time (e.g., 5 crackers, 20 raisins, 10 baby carrots).
Use a calendar to count down the days to a birthday or special holiday. Help your child see the connection between a numeral like "5," the word "five," and five days on the calendar.
Practice simple addition and subtraction using small toys and blocks.
Play simple board games where your child moves a game piece from one position to the next.
Geometry Have your child name the shapes of cookie cutters or blocks.
Arrange cookie cutters in patterns on a cookie sheet or placemat. A simple pattern might be: star-circle-star-circle.
Measurement Let your child help you measure ingredients for a simple recipe - preferably a favorite!
Measure your child's height every month or so, showing how you use a yardstick or tape measure. Mark his or her height on a "growth chart" or a mark on a door frame. Do the same with any siblings. Help your child compare his or her own height to previous months and also to his or her siblings' heights.
Math language Talk through games and daily activities that involve math concepts.
Have your child name numbers and shapes.
Help him or her understand and express comparisons like more than/less than, bigger/smaller, and near/far.
Spatial relations Play games where you direct your child to jump forward and back, to run far from you or stay nearby.
Use songs with corresponding movements to teach concepts like in and out, up and down, and round and round.

Your child may grasp (and enjoy) certain math concepts more easily than others; some variation in children's math awareness and skills is to be expected. Even so, by age 3 or 4 your child should understand certain math concepts and be able to perform related math tasks.

If you or your child's teacher believe your child is having an especially difficult time with early math, you may want to consult your pediatrician and perhaps contact your public school system's Director of Special Education for a diagnostic screening at no cost to you (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Taking math out of isolation

For generations, math has been taught as a separate subject and wasn't integrated with other subjects in school. Math was taught and talked about only in "math class" and was rarely mentioned or used in other lessons and activities. There is now a shift toward teaching math across the curriculum, weaving it into language arts, music, art, and physical activity. For example, students doing an art project might be asked to incorporate and describe geometry through the use of certain shapes and patterns. They might also learn math through stories and songs that include counting, numbers, and the language of math; the Dr. Seuss classic, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is one fun example! This type of integrated approach has been used successfully as a way to teach young children to read, so it makes sense that the same approach may enhance children's understanding of math.

Ask about the preschool's math program

Whether your child is already enrolled in preschool or you're shopping around for one, you may want to do some detective work about the math program they're using. Here are some key questions to ask the teacher and preschool director:

  • What math program do you use at this school? Have you used it before and if so, how well did students learn? Do different classrooms use different programs? How much instruction is "set" by the program and how much is "flexible" and created by the teacher?
  • How is the program designed to prepare children to succeed in kindergarten math? (Note: Once a child enters public elementary school, his or her performance is measured against educational standards and requirements specific to the state where he or she lives.)
  • Do you blend math into other activities and subjects in the general curriculum? If so, can you give me some examples? (If not, why not?)
  • How do you know when a child is doing well or needs some additional help? Do you screen children individually? Do you offer tailored math instruction to meet their needs?
  • Have the teachers received instruction and support in how best to teach math? Do they have mentors to turn to for guidance? Do they know what to do if a child shows signs of struggle?
  • Why did you select this approach to teach math? Is there research to support your use of this program? Do you use combination of different approaches? (Keep in mind that research into early math is a fairly "new" science, so there is far less research than there is for reading.)

Getting answers to these questions will equip you to understand and reinforce the math your child is learning at school. Try using similar words, math concepts, and activities as those used in the classroom. You'll also gain insight into how well your child is learning math at school, and you'll have an easier time communicating with the teacher during formal meetings and informal check-ins.

Team up with the teacher

If your child attends preschool, be sure to check in with the teacher so you can coordinate your at-school and at-home math instruction. Parent orientation sessions, parent-teacher conferences, and even volunteering in the classroom (and observing the action) provide great opportunities to learn about the school's math program and see firsthand how your own child is learning. Ask the teacher what aspects of math your child understands and where he or she is struggling. Then ask how the teacher is addressing any difficulties — and how you might do the same at home. Review the work and projects your child brings home from school and discuss them together.

Homeschooling your preschooler

If your child doesn't attend preschool and you've opted to teach him or her at home, you should learn about the kindergarten math standards in your state, so you can tailor your teaching to prepare your child to meet those requirements. Contact your state department of education to learn more. And, ask your public school district (or private elementary school) what math skills they require incoming kindergarten students to know.

You're not a math-minded person?

What if you aren't a math-minded person? Did you struggle with math in school? Do you count on your fingers (It's not a crime!) or have trouble doubling the ingredients and cooking time in recipes? Many parents (and some teachers!) are intimidated by math. If this sounds like you, spend some time reflecting on how you use math in daily life. Consider the practical aspects of math that you're teaching your child (i.e., "number sense," language of math, measurement, geometry, and spatial relations) and think about how often you use them successfully in daily life. When you balance your checkbook, calculate gas mileage, or estimate how well new furniture will fit in your living room, you're using math! Your child will sense any anxiety or lack of confidence you have around math, and this may influence his or her own attitude toward the subject. The more confidence you have in your own math ability, the greater success you'll have teaching your child.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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