Want to raise a child with a good head for numbers?

This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Your Baby magazine. 

Most parents go to a lot of trouble to make their little ones aware of words. We read stories, recites rhymes, sing alphabet songs and play word games. Unfortunately, few of us are as focused on numeracy skills as we are on word and reading skills.

Maybe we think that sums are boring or we remember a bad experience at school with maths. But keep in mind that maths skills are only getting more important the faster the world moves. Luckily you don’t have to be a boffin in it yourself to give your child a positive feeling about numbers.

Maths can be as much fun as reading – if you know how! Our environment is teeming with maths and there are so many ways in which you can lead your child to explore and develop her natural numeracy skills. With the right attitude you can help even the tiniest toddler tackle numbers.

Sums at 7 months? 

Yes, a feel for numbers starts that early! Research has shown that babies of 7 months make a connection between the number of voices they hear and the number of faces they see. When your baby starts to move around the house, she can start to learn about numbers.

Every day she will be solving problems while she plays and she will see how numbers and shapes are used, for instance when you are baking and measuring, when you work in the garden, when you talk about time and how it passes. All these are examples of how we use the language of numbers.

The idea of patterns are also very important in maths. Our number systems are based on patterns. You can introduce patterns to your child at a very early age by using beads, paper plates, pasta or toilet paper.

You can thread beads in patterns. Just choose beads with big holes for less nimble fingers.

Teach the words of numbers

Children learn through repetition. They learn to count when we count the cans we take out of our shopping bags, or when we count steps as we climb. They learn how old they are, how many fingers to hold up and what that number looks like when written out.

Later they will learn their street number and home phone number. Language and number skills develop together, especially when you talk about patterns.

By explaining simple patterns to your toddler, you are laying the foundation for language development. (“Here is a long one, then a short one, then a long one.”) Your child will gradually learn how to describe more complex patterns herself.

She will be able to explain how she sorts objects, and which object share the same shape, size or colour, and she will be able to tell you why she grouped them together. Later, when she is much older, she will use these very same words and pattern concepts to do algebra and geometry in high school.

The art of problem solving 

If your child can learn how to problem solve from a young age, your battle with maths is half won. Problem solving teaches her logic and develops the ability to see an argument through to the end.

Children are naturally curious and will soon learn that there is often more than one solution to a problem. Discuss problems like, “How are we going to fit all the toys in the box?” or “What happens when we put the big dolls in front on the shelf and the little ones at the back?”

These challenges could keep her busy for hours. When you encourage your child to ask questions and suggest solutions, and when you share your own thought processes with her, you are helping her to become a good problem solver.

Nought isn't nothing 

This is an important mathematical concept to learn: The fact that there is a concept nought, and that it is a number. The difference between nought and nothing might not seem important initially, but when your child learns to write numbers she has to realise that the nought in 40 does not mean nothing, but nought.

This becomes even more important with bigger numbers. As soon as she has learnt to count from 0 to 9, you can teach her how the numbers look. Most preschoolers learn better when they use more than one sense, so cut the numbers out of sand paper and let her feel them too.

How to help 

If you want to teach your child numeracy skills, become aware of how we are surrounded by maths. Then you can explain things in simple language. 

Your toddler learns about numbers when you... 

  • Count things
  • Look for shapes
  • Use words about weight and measurements, like heavy and light, short and long. 
  • Talk about how much sugar is left in the container (volume) and if the baking tin is big enough for the dough (capacity). 
  • Discuss time (how long, until, since). 
  • Divide the day into time slots (first breakfast, then we go to play group). 
  • You estimate and use words like close and far, more or less, not as much as.
  • Divide food and talk about equal pieces. 

Also see: 11 games to play with your preschooler to boost math skills  

You can create opportunities for learning by... 

  • Asking your toddler to set the table (“Bring four cups. One for Mommy, one for Daddy and one for you and one for your brother.”) 
  • Giving her boxes to play with that she can stack on each other or put inside one another or that she can hide in. 
  • Filling a container with water or sand and giving her various smaller containers to empty and fill. 
  • Asking questions like “Is that one full? Which jug is bigger? Which one can hold more sand?” 
  • Helping her to build puzzles and explaining why certain pieces belong where they do. (“It is green like grass and has a straight side.”) 
  • Going for walks on “obstacle courses”: under the tree, around the chair, over the stone, down the slide. 
  • Using positional language at home and encouraging her to fetch things under the bed, next to the chair, behind the curtain. 
  • Pointing out everyday number use, such as that houses have numbers so that the postman knows where to leave the post, that cars have numbers on their licence plates so we can know who they belong to, or that product in shops have prices so we know how much to pay. 
  • Asking questions like “How much? In which direction should we drive? Will there be enough? How long before we get there?” 
  • Making remarks such as “That is a high building." "Your feet are getting bigger – we need to buy you new shoes.” 
  • Explaining time slots, also in the past. ("You’ve already bathed, now you can eat.” “Only two more sleeps before Granny comes.”)

If you talk about numbers every day, your child will too. Don’t worry about algebra and geometry for now. What your child needs to learn now is that mathematics is an important tool for everyday use. She will soon learn how much fun numbers can be, and who knows – maybe one day she will be a famous mathematician. 

Would you try any of these tricks? Tell us in the comment section below or send your advice to chatback@parent24.com and we may publish them.

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