Supporting your toddler’s future math achievement could be as simple as counting his toes or talking with her about the “big rectangular bus” on the road.
The key is to start early and advance as your child grows.
One study found that babies who were exposed to more spatial words – such as small, short, square, and straight – went on to perform better on spatial tasks when they were 4.5 years old (3). This is intriguing because spatial ability is a strong predictor of success in STEM fields (4).
Other studies have found that number competence prior to kindergarten predicts both math AND reading achievement throughout elementary school (5, 6). Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Children with low math skills when entering school tend to stay on the same path (7). While interventions can help these kids, the necessary support may not be available in all schools.
Keep it simple and fun
Exposing a young child to math is not difficult or time consuming. Parents can make a big difference by simply being more intentional about the ways they play and interact with their kids.
The focus for babies and toddlers is on simple math concepts, such as becoming familiar with numbers and hearing words about shapes and sizes. Parents can incorporate these concepts during play and other everyday activities. This is how kids learn best, and it’s also a great way to fit learning into busy schedules.
Fortunately our daily lives offer plenty opportunities to explore math concepts. Here are a few examples of simple ways to help your young child build a strong math foundation:
One size does not fit all
Every child develops at different pace. This article includes general suggestions that may not be the right fit for your specific situation. If you are concerned about your child’s development, please talk with your pediatrician and/or contact your state’s Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.
More simple ways to expose your child to math:
1) Count your child’s toes*
2) Count the buttons on your child’s clothes as you fasten them*
3) Count the number of Cheerios (or other snacks) you give your child*
4) Count as you and your child walk up the stairs*
5) Sing songs about numbers
6) Teach your child concepts like “pick one” and “pick two”
7) Have a number scavenger hunt in your house (show your child the numbers on the clock, kitchen timer, calendar, etc.)
8) Help your child begin to recognize what the numbers look like, such as by pointing to them in a picture book about numbers
9) Teach your child to recite the numbers in sequence (add more numbers as your child progresses)
10) Teach your child to answer how old they are (either verbally or by using their fingers)
11) Ask your child questions about numbers, such as how many plates you need when setting the table for dinner
*When you count objects, you help your child learn the concept of one-to-one correspondence (the idea that when counting, each object is only counted once)
Shapes and measurements:
1) Point to shapes in your environment and name them
2) Say the names of shapes when playing with a shape puzzle
3) Have a shape scavenger hunt in your house
4) Play with a shape sorter and narrate what your child is doing
5) Play with bean bag shapes – try tossing them in a bucket or balancing them on your head
6) Describe the shapes (for example, “squares have four equal sides”)
7) Stack blocks
8) Use various sizes of containers when playing in sand or water
9) Reinforce the concept of “more” and “enough” at meal time
10) While on a walk, have fun varying the size and speed of your steps (e.g. big steps, little steps, fast steps, slow steps).
11) Use spatial vocabulary in your daily life. These include words like small, large, circle, square, long, short, straight, zig-zag, etc.
1) Talk about the order of your child’s day (“We brush your teeth then read a book before bed.”)
2) Talk about patterns in your environment, such as the pattern on the tile floor or on your child’s clothes
3) String beads or stack blocks in a simple color pattern
4) Make a pattern with how you move your body. For example, the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song.
5) Have your child sort their toys by colors, shape, or other shared characteristics
6) Introduce simple cycles, like day and night
7) Talking with your child about the red, yellow and green on traffic lights
8) Make a pattern with items your child find’s in nature
9) Placing silverware in the right pattern when they set the table
10) Read stories with patterns
11) Help your child play with a stacking toy, such as a toy that your child stacks from largest to smallest