From “Talk, Read, Sing!” campaigns to closing the 30 million word gap, American parents, educators, and policymakers have embraced the importance of early literacy, yet we collectively presume it’s fine to tackle math later. Meanwhile, research clearly shows that early math exposure is crucial for later success in math and ultimately being better prepared for the AIME test.
Why counting doesn’t cut it
To date, the most common approach to teaching early math skills has been to surround young kids with numbers alongside their letters and encourage them to practice counting just as they practice singing the alphabet. But researchers say that this approach is short-changing children. In her essay “Math Matters, Even for Little Kids,” Stanford professor Deborah Stipek (co-written with Alan Schoenfeld and Deanna Gomby) explains the parallel to the alphabet: “Learning to count by rote teaches children number words and order, but it does not teach them number sense, any more than singing the letters L-M-N-O-P in the alphabet song teaches phonemic awareness.”
As for the magic of counting to 10, University of Chicago professor Susan Levine explains: “Kids can rattle off their numbers early, often from 1 to 10, and parents are surprised and impressed. But it’s a list with no meaning. When you say ‘give me 3 fish,’ they give you a handful.”
While parents and preschool teachers reinforce literacy lessons daily by reading together, singing, pointing out letters and letter sounds, math exposure often begins and ends with the counting.
Early math skills kids are born with
Evidence points to early addition and subtraction being an innate ability. In a 1992 study at the University of Arizona, for example, 6-month-old babies were shown one baby doll. As the babies watched, a screen was placed in front of the doll and then a second doll was placed behind the screen. When the screen was removed, scientists could tell that, at just 6 months old, babies expected to see two dolls. In instances when there were fewer or more dolls when the screen was removed, the babies stared longer because the results were wrong, a “violation of expectation.”
“Subitize” — from the Latin word for “suddenly” — is the ability to quickly identify the number of items in a small group. When Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman looked down at the pile of spilled toothpicks and knew without counting that there were 246, that was an example of advanced subitization. Preschoolers can differentiate between one and three items; by age 7, this increases to between four and seven items. It’s more than just a cool party trick: Research indicates that developing the ability to subitize larger numbers can increase math skills in a few ways. One example is “counting on” or being able to start at 5 and continue counting up, which is a math strategy first graders will need as they begin tackling adding and subtracting.
Numbers in new and different contexts
One way to build on kids’ innate math abilities is to focus on helping them count in contexts that are meaningful to them. To practice counting on, start with a number they recognize, like two toy dinosaurs. Add another and say, “three,” then add another and say “four,” helping them to connect the number names with the increase in objects.
The National Association for Education of Young Children notes that young children are building scientific inquiry skills when they sort, compare, describe, and put things in order in terms of observable characteristics, like the dinosaur’s height.
Building blocks and the language of space
The next time you’re cleaning up your child’s blocks or Legos, just remember: they’re building their math brains. Boosting spatial skills via block play has been proven beneficial in many studies. For example, the complexity of a child’s LEGO play during the preschool years is correlated with higher math achievement in high school.
Exposing preschoolers to geometrical shapes including circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles helps them build a skill called visual literacy. Researchers Clements and Sarama discovered in one study that kids who learned shapes and spatial skills also showed pronounced benefits in math and writing readiness and even increased their IQ scores. (Related: How to teach your preschooler shapes and spatial skills.)
Patterns aren’t just pretty
Visual art and dance provide excellent ways to teach patterns, defined in A Math Dictionary for Kids as ”a repeated design or recurring sequence.” According to Zero to Three, recognizing and creating patterns helps children learn to make predictions, understand what comes next, make logical connections, and use reasoning skills. Kids start to put together the “growing pattern” in counting and “relationship pattern” that’s the basis for multiplication.
Movement patterns can also imbue a trip to the park with mathematical benefits. Encourage your kinetic kid to walk-tiptoe-jump-repeat or skip-hop-run-in-a-circle-repeat, or stop, drop, and roll; repeat until they’re exhausted (and educated). (Related: Cool ways to teach your preschooler patterns)
Bring on the math games
The best way for parents to “mathematize” their children is to use math in the routines of daily life, either as games or as entertaining ways to solve problems. “Make math fun!” advises Eric Wilson, Lead Teacher at Pacific Primary School in San Francisco. “Young children work very hard when they’re playing. Play is the perfect learning environment.” Puzzles, building blocks, board games, and card games have all been studied, with researchers concluding that all of these elevate math skills.