Math: Turn kids on to numbers

Don’t let your fear (or hatred) of math keep you from doing it with your kids — early numeracy and spatial skills are keys to academic success.

Photo: Roberto Caruso

“It was all literacy, literacy, literacy,” says Sue Harrison, a mother of three, recalling the advice she got from friends and experts when her son Matthew, 7, and three-year-old twins, Christopher and James, were born.

“People said to read books to your babies — even if they’re not focusing on them — when they’re three months old, and to get in the habit of reading at night. It was all about reading. There was nothing about numbers.”

Experts still agree that language skills are vitally important for intellectual development. But babies start learning math innately from they day they’re born — distinguishing shapes and quantities between feedings and naps. And the sooner parents start to connect those infant observations with actual math, the better off they’ll be in the long run.

Read more: 10 best math apps for kids>

Strong math skills in the preschool years are the best predictor of later academic success, according to a widely cited 2007 analysis of six studies. The analysis was conducted by Greg Duncan, now at the University of California, and then replicated here in Canada in 2010 at the University of Ottawa, and in French at the Universite? de Montre?al. Duncan found that reading was the second-best predictor of future academic success, and attention skills were third.

It might seem strangely early to teach an infant about shapes, or daunting to teach a rambunctious toddler about addition and subtraction. But math educators stress the goal isn’t to “drill and kill,” it’s about recognizing that math is all around us, and taking the opportunity to talk about it and learn from it.

Nancy Chapple is an expert at helping parents recognize math in the real world. Chapple, the executive director of the Family Math Canada Foundation in London, Ont., and a teacher with more than two decades of experience, sees math in everyday objects, like a muffin tin, and everyday activities, like walking up steps and pouring water into different-sized containers in the bathtub.

“Setting the table can be a math experience when you look at how many place settings you need, or when you look at the pattern involved in placing the plates and the cutlery,” she says. “And cooking: Any recipe is mathematical because you’re measuring and you’re counting the number of cups or teaspoons that go into something.”

Chapple urges parents to narrate their everyday math activities, even announcing to their kids, “We’re doing math!” This enthusiasm reminds kids and parents alike that math is everywhere, it’s nothing to be scared of, and it doesn’t have to be stressful.

“Parents often don’t feel comfortable with their own math skills and understanding,” says Chapple. “They may also tend to have a fairly narrow focus on what math is — they think math equals arithmetic.” But math is much more. It also includes geometry, probability, measurement and patterning.

Harrison barely passed the subject in grade 12, and doesn’t play math games or do drills with her three-year-old twins. But the fact that they already know how to count to 10 proves that they’re learning, regardless. They might have picked up the numbers and sequencing when their mom counts out loud as she scoops coffee into the coffee maker, or when their dad walks up stairs with them. But Harrison has never thought of these everyday activities as a way to teach math.

“Once we help parents to see that yes, they are teaching math, and name it with the appropriate language, I think it really becomes effective teaching,” Chapple says. Thankfully, teaching math to babies, toddlers and preschool kids isn’t “rocket science,” says Susan C. Levine, a professor in the psychology and comparative human development departments at the University of Chicago.

“Parents know enough math to engage in math talk and math games with their kids,” Levine says. “It’s important to do these things with young children and not turn them off the subject at a young age.”

Read more: Math milestones — Is your child behind?>

She also advises parents who dislike math to keep those feelings to themselves. “Saying they’re not good in math or they don’t like math could lead their child to adopt those views, and you want to keep all the avenues and doors open for your children,” she says. In delivering a positive math message to their kids, some parents just might rekindle their own interest in the subject.

Barry Onslow, professor emeritus of mathematics education at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., points out that there are all sorts of opportunities to teach literacy and math simultaneously. For instance, when reading a story aloud, parents can encourage a young child to count how many birds appear on a page or discuss the shape of a wheel. The key, Onslow says, is to keep the learning lively and fun, while helping kids make sense of math.

“Imagine if we read to children like this: ‘The… cat…sat…on…the…mat,’” he drones, with long pauses between words. “If that were reading, who would enjoy literature?”

And if math is limited to flash-card drills and numbers in workbooks, kids and parents would be unlikely to get too excited about that subject either.

While math apps and games on tablets and smart phones can conveniently grab a toddler’s attention and teach skills, they are by no means necessary. Play-based learning while talking about math — judging which block tower is taller and which stuffed animal is bigger and why — has a tremendous positive impact and fosters strong parent-child relationships at the same time.

This article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Fear of numbers,” pp. 50-53.