The value of numbers – math counts more than you think

How parents can help their children develop a good number sense and early math skills
ckmck, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
ckmck, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

“What’s with all of the math my preschooler is doing? I don’t remember having this much math as a kid.” While many parents ask these questions, few question singing the ABC song all day. As parents, we know ABCs are important. But numbers? They can wait, right? Wrong.

Research in child development has long shown that early literacy skills such as recognizing letters and their sounds are important for later reading skills and school success. But recent work tells us that early math skills are even better predictors of later academic success than reading. In fact, early math deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

But math is a big word. What kind of math are we talking about? Numbers! Children who struggle to understand the meaning of numbers in kindergarten have been shown to have serious math difficulties later in elementary school . These early math skills even impact college graduation.

Think about how many times a day you use numbers to solve everyday problems: “How many minutes do I have before the meeting?” “How many pizzas do I need for the kids’ sleepover?” Research suggests that the best way to develop math skills such as number knowledge is through everyday problem solving. Helping children learn how to use numbers is as simple as recasting questions we routinely ask them. Rather than saying, “Pick out some clothes you want to bring to Granny’s,” we can say, “How many shirts do you think you need for our visit to Granny’s?”

This is a simple way to focus your child’s attention on the importance of number in everyday life and give them plenty of problem-solving practice.

“Children who struggle to understand the meaning of numbers in kindergarten have been shown to have serious math difficulties later in elementary school.”

Now that we have turned your child’s attention to the usefulnessof number, let’s think about what they actually need to know about number. We all want our children to be able to count. One important counting principle is called cardinality, or knowing that the last number we said while counting objects was the number of objects in that group. It’s important to highlight the number of objects in a group when counting with your child. “One… two… three… four. We have four crayons!”

When a child has good number sense, they have an understanding of the value of numbers and which number within a pair is greater. Understanding the size of numbers helps children judge how reasonable an answer is when they are solving a problem.

How can we help our kids develop number understanding – especially important as it predicts later math achievement? Start simple: help your child compare numbers. Which is larger: 5 or 6? Try experimenting with a balance scale. Which side has more? How can we make both sides equal? Believe it or not, this is important for later algebra skill.

“Early math deserves much more attention than it currently gets.”

Ever played the board game Chutes & Ladders? This board game is linear – the spaces are presented in a straight line (rather than in a curve or a rectangle), with each space one more than the previous one, and the numbers appear on the board. This type of board game is excellent for developing children’s understanding of the sizes of specific numbers and how to “count on” from a certain number.

When playing a game like Chutes & Ladders with your child, encourage them to count the number of the spaces, not the number spun. For example, if the child’s turn starts on the third space and they spin a 2, count “four, five” with them rather than “one, two.” Games like this connect the magnitude or value of a number to the actual numeric symbol, a concept children need to understand in kindergarten.

“When you keep things fun and help your child  develop a positive relationship with math and numbers, you are helping increase your child’s curiosity, imagination, flexibility, and persistence.”

What are other ways we can make the connection clearer between a number’s value and its symbol? Fancy apps or special equipment are not needed. Some everyday household objects will do. Write numbers on index cards and have your child give you the amount that matches the symbol. Make a game of it. For example, show a card with a “5” on it, and ask, “Can you give me this many blocks?”

Use those same index cards to play some number comparison games or to put the numbers in order. With a little creativity and just a few minutes a day, the possibilities are endless.

But this is not “drill and kill!” We know children learn best during playful learning. When you keep things fun and help your child  develop a positive relationship with math and numbers, you are helping increase your child’s curiosity, imagination, flexibility, and persistence. And these are all important factors for success in math – and for learning both in and out of school.

Co-authors of this blog post: Brianna Devlin, Caroline Morano, Roberta M. Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

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