How to help your kids fall in love with math: a guide for grown-ups

April 23, 2016

So you want your kid to know math? Of course you do. Math is an important tool, used widely in many disciplines, and helps us make sense of our world. It’s also beautiful, fun, and interesting, especially for young children.

Kids are just entering the world of patterns and numbers, and their love of math is ready to bloom. They are ready and excited to count, classify, name, and look for patterns. But too often, parents unintentionally do damage, either by neglecting their kids’ mathematical development, or by pushing them too hard, too quickly. It’s important to find the right balance, but many parents aren’t sure how.

This is an issue now, as more attention is being paid to the development of a human intellect. Pre-Kindergarten education, Head Start, Common Core, and the achievement gap are all looming large in public discourse right now because we care so much about educating our children. Research has shown the best education begins at home, with a thoughtful approach to nurturing your child’s natural math instincts.

The following guide is adapted from our new math game deck for three to eight year olds, Tiny Polka Dot. These ideas are, essentially, the keys to nurturing the natural mathematical instinct that is growing in every child.

Guide for Grown-ups

1. Play! Play is the engine of learning for young children. Provide your kids with a rich environment to play in, and let them take the lead. What makes for a rich math environment?

  • Blocks – pattern blocks, legos, tangrams, and other blocks for building, sorting, and playing are the best.
  • Games – Classics like Uno, concentration, war, dots and boxes, and Tiny Polka Dot are great as soon as kids are ready for them. Winning is irrelevant at first, and many games can be played collaboratively. Keep it light, and have fun yourself!
  • A mathematical perspective – a walk in the woods, a pile of buttons, an old egg carton… these all hold rich mathematical structure if you look at them with the right eyes. Any pile of assorted object can become an opportunity to group by color, by number of holes, or by size. Walks become a chance for counting steps or physical challenges that involve gut estimations and intuitions.

You: How many steps do you think it will take to get to that tree?
Your Child: 100?
You: Let’s find out!
[You walk and count. The answer, it turns out, was 15.] You: How many steps to that next tree?
Your Child: Hmmm. 15?
You: Let’s find out!

Math teachers in elementary, middle and high school know how hard it is to get kids to intuitively understand whether their answers make sense. Connecting numbers up to the world with fun guess-and-check challenges pays off big time later.

As for egg cartons, check out the patterns emerging from kids playing with colored plastic eggs and egg cartons at Math-on-a-Stick at the Minnesota State fair. (These taken from Christopher Danielson’s aptly titled blog post, Let the Children Play.)

You might not recognize this as mathematical play, but sorting, symmetry, and grouping by equal numbers is precisely the foundation of the more abstract mathematics that will come later in school. And most importantly, it’s fun!

2. Learning takes time! The process of learning and mastering a new skill can be slow and complex. This is not a test. Do not to rush your child or expect them to know something after they have seen it once or twice. You may find a child makes the same mistake over and over again. As long as they are having fun, trust that your child is learning! It’s easy to over-help. Take a breath, and make sure you are letting your child take as active a role in the game as possible. It doesn’t matter if they get the answer right. Because it isn’t a test.

  • WRONG QUESTION: “Is my child smart?”
  • RIGHT QUESTION   “How is my child thinking?”

3. Think out loud. Your child is imitating everything you do, and the more you can narrate your thoughts, the better a model of thinking you can be. Slow down, find reasons to count slowly and clearly, and use mathematical language to describe what’s happening in your head. Never say, “Mommy (or Daddy) is terrible at math!” If you don’t have the ideal relationship to math, now’s your chance take a fresh look.

The happy truth about doing math with your kids is that it’s way more fun than you’re expecting it to be. It’s not about right answers, and it’s not about speed. It’s about playing, counting, building, sorting, and studying the wonderful, colorful world around us.

If you’re interested in more ways to explore math with your three- to eight-year-olds, our new math game, Tiny Polka Dot, is on Kickstarter now. It provides multitudes of ways to play with number and pattern in a colorful and fun family game.

Because really, we should all be having way more fun.

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