Math for the very young


It’s title promotes unnecessary parental mania, but once you get past that bit of self-marketing, I think this Atlantic article offers five great ideas for helping parents encourage numeracy (my word, not the article’s) in very young children.  Here are its key points.

  1. Talk about numbers.  Don’t just count to ten, refer to physical objects to help young ones make connections.
  2. Talk about spatial relations.  Learn names for different shapes and make comparisons.  [My addition: Continued conversations about comparisons are the seeds for phenomenal connections later.  One example is my ‘blog post here.]
  3. Talk about math with your hands.  Point to objects as you talk about them.  Connections between multiple representations is huge for brain development.
  4. Engage your child in spatial play.  The article talks about puzzles (more below), but I’d add rolling balls, stacking blocks, and more.
  5. Engage your child in number play.   Play games like Chutes & Ladders to encourage counting. 

These are all great points and not particularly revolutionary if you think about it.  So, I’d like to add a few topics to the list from my play with my own children.

  • Play with blocks, Legos, etc.  Get down on the floor and stack those blocks yourself alongside your child.  Sometimes build your own tower and sometimes add to your child’s creations.  The connection time is great, and your child learns greater creativity by trying to imitate some of your more sophisticated constructions.  Talk about what you’re doing, but if your child doesn’t seem to care or follow, no problem!  Over time, the ideas will sink in, and you got quality time anyway.  As they get older, play Jenga or–even better–make your own game of Jenga using blocks.  Don’t forget to laugh and have fun when the tower falls and you get the chance to rebuild the original tower.  For young children, play with a much smaller stack of bigger blocks.  Check out this sophisticated Jenga tower.  What else can you and your child make with this game that can be good for years of play?
  • Play with jigsaw and similar puzzles.  I’m quite fond of the great creativity of most of the Melissa & Doug and other similar puzzles, but they can be pricey.  I save lots of money on puzzles at local consignment sales.  Early puzzles for my kids have knobs on them to enable easier handling.

Long before they figure out how to put them back in place, you can use the pictures for conversations about names, colors, etc.  So much room for general creativity!

Before they can assemble them, we put puzzles like the one below in their play space.  Straight-edged puzzles eventually give way to more traditional jigsaw puzzles.  As they got more sophisticated in their thinking, we encouraged them to assemble connected puzzles outside their frames.  As always, other games with the puzzles are great:  How many pieces does the puzzles have?  What colors are there?  What is Pooh doing?  Tell me a story.

I was about to put away some very simple puzzles when my oldest daughter created a new game.  She knew the early puzzles were too simple, so she turned all the pieces upside down and tried to reassemble them without the aid of pictures.

We sometimes work more complicated, increasingly difficult jigsaw puzzles together.  Talking about shapes, colors, and searching for where individual pieces might fit into the big picture of the final puzzle are all great activities.  Pointing to part of the picture on a puzzle box and then pointing to the corresponding location in the puzzle as it is assembled is a tremendous lesson that helps children make connections between multiple representations of ideas.

We also have a big foam floor puzzle of the alphabet (Thanks, N!).  In the earliest days, it was a nice floor pad.  It comes apart and can be assembled in different ways.  Actually, being able to disassemble is a great early skill for children (good to remember when you’re annoyed the 100+ times you put it back together yourself).  Some pieces are easier to put back than others, but cheer every time they accomplish a new task. Sometimes we sit in another room and ask them to retrieve a specific letter.  We’ve encouraged early literacy by connecting every letter with something familiar: “D is for Daddy”, “Y is for yogurt”.  They remember these special relationships long before they’ve memorized the alphabet.  Literacy and numeracy are not isolated skills.

Don’t forget to try something unusual.  I’ve had great fun making blocks and fences out of this floor puzzle.  My girls giggle as we build interlocking walls around them, creating and filling in windows, etc.

  • When they’re older, draw pictures of their room or maps of your home.  It doesn’t matter if the scales are right or the pictures are accurate.  Show them on maps of your neighborhood, city, state, country, or world where they live and where special family and friends live.  Revisit this when you travel or walk with your child.  Connections between the real world and 2D maps can be tough, but are phenomenal skills for later mathematical abilities.
  • Older games we’ve used that also happen to be great for visual-spatial development Connect 4 and the absolutely glorious Blokus.  I’ll post more on this game another time.

WARNING:  I’ve said this before, but I worry about parents who might succumb to the mania suggested by the Atlantic article’s title.  Education of children should not be about competition or creating math whizzes.  Play, model creative play yourself to encourage their creativity, cheer for your kids when they do something new to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, don’t worry if your kids don’t get it right away, be patient, be 100% willing to move to a different task/game if your child isn’t interested, and make connections.

Growth will happen if you keep them surrounded by challenges and point out how much fun it is to think, to create, and to solve.

3 responses to “Math for the very young

  1. Chris,
    This is an outstanding post. Thanks also for the link to the piece in the Atlantic—it’s a very good article, and it makes me wonder if part of the problem with education journalism isn’t the reporters themselves, but the editors who write the hyperbolic headlines designed to agitate and appeal to the anxieties of parents.

    I really like the suggestions you provide for how to teach numeracy through play, even from the earliest ages. I hope that I will be able to put these ideas into practice with my own daughter, but most importantly, I hope that I will keep the larger goal of teaching my daughter to love learning through play.

    Finally, I absolutely love Blockus, though I haven’t played it since we left DC. Diana and I used to play all the time with another former student of yours, Molly. Have you seen the online version of the game?

    • I wondered that myself. The article is so much richer than its hyperbolic headline. Have we reached the stage where we’ll say anything for a “hit”? Sadly, it worked on me: I clicked, read, and wrote a ‘blog post. Even so, I keep hoping for a bit more rationality.

  2. Pingback: Blokus | CAS Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s