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Multiplying Math Skills
A great deal of attention and thought is given to ways of helping young children develop pre-reading skills. That is important, but we need to devote just as much effort to help them develop early math skills and awareness. And the daily home environment is rife with opportunities for this. One doesn’t need to set aside 15 minutes a day five days a week to decide, “Now we’re going to learn math skills.” Rather, the most effective technique is to build into everyday home routines an awareness of basic math skills and early numeric operations.

Our daily lives are full of math, when you stop to think about it. “Our house is the second from the corner,” we tell a delivery person, using at least two math skills in those directions. Every time we make a pot of coffee we might measure 6 scoops of coffee and 8 cups of water. If someone offers to pour us a second cup, we might say, “I’ll take just half a cup.” We might ask a baby, expecting only a gestured answer, “Do you want more milk?”

When we bake a cake or cookies, we count and measure continuously. If by chance you give your 3-year-old son a slightly smaller cookie than his 5-year-old sister, you are sure to hear the accusation, “Hers is bigger than mine.” And you thought he was too young to understand math! Then there is that daily announcement based on advanced math skills that every preschooler dreads to hear: “It’s time for you to go to bed.” Indeed, math is everywhere in our homes, and the best way to introduce your young child to its marvels is to involve her or him in our everyday use of math skills.

Building Math Skills - Memorization vs. Understanding
Some of what we think of as early math involves memorization and imitation more than real understanding of number concepts. For example, when you teach your child to answer the question, “How old are you?” by saying, “3 years old,” the answer is merely a “name” for the numerical age and is not truly mathematical. You have taught her what to say, and she has memorized what you taught. When she can hold up three fingers as she says “3 years old,” she has moved slightly ahead. However, she probably does not yet have a concept of “threeness.” After all, what do fingers have to do with how old she is?

Still, even though they indicate only memorized and parroted expressions, don’t neglect these early introductions to math. They help pave the way into genuine understanding of the underlying concepts. They also help the words used for numbers acquire meaning. Play as many number word games as you know: “One, two, three, four five, I caught a mouse alive; six, seven, eight, nine, 10, I let it go again.” The sequence and rhythm of the words will help lock in the names of the numerals. Of course, easy access to those wonderful appendages, fingers and toes, makes the learning of basic numerals real and practical. Do you ever reflect on what an incredible miracle it is that we have the same number of fingers as we have toes, and that our ancestors devised a base-10 numerical system?

Building Math Skills - Sorting and Ordering
Early manifestations of math skills occur before a child can learn the words that have been assigned to different quantities—one, two, three, etc. —and recite them in sequence. If you give a baby two kinds of dry cereal, he may push aside one type and pick up only the type he prefers. Or, if you give a toddler peas mixed with carrots, he may eat all the carrots and leave all the peas. He is sorting objects into categories, an early math task. He is actually defining a “set,” a concept he will encounter repeatedly in “higher” (i.e., elementary school) math. And doing that requires a rudimentary awareness of “same” and “different.” You can encourage that awareness with many household activities. One of my favorites is putting away clean laundry and sorting the clothes, especially socks. Hold up one sock and request, “Find me another one like this.” When she finds it, praise her and say, “Now we’ve got two socks—one sock for each foot.” Actually, doing the laundry offers many opportunities for the development of math skills, such as sorting clothes by color (dark vs. light). Young children love to get involved in such activities, and they are full of learning opportunities. The same can be said for putting away toys. “Let’s put all the heavy things on the bottom shelf and all the lighter toys on the top shelf.”

Building Math Skills - One-to-One Correspondence
Even when a child can count to five, 10 or 100, he might not have fully realized that every number that can be recited represents a specified quantity or position in a sequence—that is, it stands for a particular amount or defines a relative position. This is what mathematicians call one-to-one correspondence. If you ask your preschooler to count his fingers for you and point to each one as he counts, for example, he may go correctly through the verbal sequence but already have reached the number seven when he gets to the fifth finger! Don’t scold if this happens. Just say, “You have to make sure you touch only one finger each time you say a number.” A good way to help a preschooler understand such math skills is to participate in play with her. Sit at a table with her and take out a few blocks. Ask her to count each one and point to a block as she counts. She’ll probably do just fine up to about three or four blocks then start hitting some more than once. Take away a few blocks and spread the others apart a bit more. As she masters the lower numbers with blocks placed more distant from one another, add more blocks placed closer and closer together until she gets it right. She’ll love this game, and so will you.

Building Math Skills - The Joy of Cooking
For this last suggestion I am borrowing the title of a famous cookbook. Opportunities for math learning in cooking are boundless, and they are full of joy for your preschooler. Have him count how many eggs you take out of the carton. Then, after they’ve been cracked, ask him how many yolks there are. How many whites? (That’s tricky and will make him think, as all the whites run together.) If your kitchen can accommodate the potential mess, let her measure 2 cups of flour and pour them into your bowl or on to waxed paper. And is it not a mathematical miracle that 1 cup of milk plus 1 cup of milk equals 2 cups of milk, which is just what the cake calls for? That’s early addition, and an extremely important exposure to math.

So, whatever you do about fostering pre-reading skills, don’t let these golden years go by without multiplying your preschooler’s experiences with math.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education