Math Talk for Early Learning

All children are born with the ability to learn math. As children experience rich and stimulating environments, their brains build pathways and connections (Boaler, 2016). Rich and stimulating environments may sound fancy, but it’s not – no snazzy toys or doctorate required. All you need to do is talk about math with your child!

Talking about numbers and shapes with your child positively impacts their understanding of foundational math skills (Berkowitz et al., 2015). Every moment of math talk reinforces important pathways in your child’s brain.

Incorporating math talk into your daily routine is worth it – and fun! I must warn you though – once you start to notice opportunities to talk about math, you will see math everywhere.

The Formula for Math Talk

You don’t need to be a math expert (which you could be if you wanted to) to talk to your child about math. All you need to know is what types of questions to ask. The formula for math talk is to take an everyday activity and tie in these foundational math skills:

Counting and Quantity: Learning to count is essential to building the concept of what a number is. Count anything and everything! When counting, make it tactile and visual: have your child touch each item as you count and keep track of the count with your fingers. Focus on counting one item per number, and emphasize that the last number is the total amount of items.

Sorting and finding patterns: Identifying the relationship between items is a foundation of mathematics. Luckily, classifying things is something that children tend to enjoy and do naturally. You can encourage flexible thinking by asking your child to sort objects in multiple ways.

Comparing characteristics: Identifying which item is bigger or which person is taller is the first step in building the concept of measurement. As children develop a stronger understanding of comparison, they may start to measure the height or length of an item using informal units, such as blocks or their hand.

Spatial Awareness: Identifying different shapes and using shape words (round, straight) sets the foundation for essential spatial reasoning skills. Highlight the position and order of objects to build spatial awareness, using words like under, over, beside, in. When talking about shapes, have children draw them with their fingers in the air.

Grocery Store

Add a sense of adventure to the weekly grocery store run by incorporating math talk.

  • Count: Think through your process when you’re deciding how many vegetables to get: We need five star fruit. How many do I have here? How many more do we need to get to 5 star fruit?
  • Compare quantities: Let’s look at how many bananas and mangoes we have. Which one do you think we have more of? Let’s count to see if you’re right!
  • Compare characteristics: What fruits are yellow? Which berry is bigger, strawberries or blueberries?
  • Identify shapes: What shape is an orange?
  • Spatial awareness: What fruit is below the limes?

Laundry

Add some excitement to one of the most boring chores ever – and by excitement, I’m referring to math talk.

  • Sort: Help me pull out all of the red items. Can you put the socks here and the shirts here?
  • Count: How many socks don’t have a partner?
  • Compare quantities: Do we have more socks with partners or more socks without partners?

Cooking

Sprinkle some spice into your cooking routine with a pinch of math talk.

  • Count: We need two onions for dinner tonight. How many do we have?
  • Compare quantities: This is the amount of salt and flour we will use. Are we using more flour or more salt?
  • Identify shapes: What shape is the pan? Does the cutting board have round or straight sides?
  • Spatial awareness: The veggies are beside the bowl. Can you help me put them in the bowl?

In the Wild

Whether you’re at the park or walking around the neighborhood, math is hidden in every tree, person, and object.

  • Count: How many dogs are there? How many steps will it take to get to the swings?
  • Compare quantities: Are there more dogs or more people? Let’s count to see if you’re right!
  • Compare characteristics: Which dog is bigger, the white dog or the brown dog? Is the man bigger or smaller than the child?
  • Identify shapes: What shape is this part of the playground?
  • Spatial awareness: Is the child over or under the slide?

Book Time

No one said you couldn’t work on literacy and numeracy at the same time! Bring math talk into your reading routine. Picture books present rich opportunities to count and compare objects. You can also build pattern recognition skills by having your child predict what event will come next.

Take Action

  1. Set a goal for how many math talk moments you want to work towards each week. Then, choose one everyday activity and plan for 1-2 math moments. It may feel weird or awkward at first, but so does starting any new habit.
  2. Make mistakes! Modeling how to learn from mistakes is one of the best things you can do with your child.

Resources

  • Bedtime Math app: This app makes math fun by providing a daily math problem situated in an interesting context. What’s even cooler about this app is that it provides three tiers of questions to target different age ranges, and it provides you with the answers!
  • Early Math Development Milestones handout

References

Berkowitz, T et al. (2015). Math at home adds up to achievement in school. Science 350, 196. Retrieved from this website.

Fromboluti, C. S., and Rinck, N. (1999 June). Early childhood: Where learning begins. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education. Retrieved on May 11, 2018 from https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/EarlyMath/title.html

Harris, B. and Peterson, D. (2017). Developing Math Skills in Early Childhood. Mathematica Policy Research. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED587415.pdf.

Help Your Child Develop Early Math Skills. Zero to Three. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/299-help-your-child-develop-early-math-skills.

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