Master Math in Preschool

Dear Parents,

In last week’s blog we talked about doing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at home. This week I wanted to share some thoughts about engaging your preschooler in math. Most parents teach rote counting (memorized repeating of number names) and one-to-one correspondence—the understanding that each object being counted represents one more item. Yet there is so much more that a preschool child is capable of doing, of learning, and of enjoying. Here are a few more tips.

Children can often play with patterns in fun, quick, and spontaneous little games. It can be a color pattern made while putting together blocks, a foot stomping or clapping rhythm, or a thoughtful arrangement of snack goodies. Being able to recognize and create patterns helps children to observe and then make a prediction of what comes next. Understanding patterns prepares children to learn complicated mathematical concepts and better understand mathematical operations. Parents best help by encouraging and joining in with this type of play.

Another math skill children can learn through play is the ability to look at a group of objects and know, without counting, how many objects are in the group. Even children who cannot count, can compare two groups of similar items and know which one has more and which has less. Once children are able to count, they will be able identify, for example, how many fish crackers are on a plate or how many dots are on a pair of dice with just a quick glance. The older preschooler can usually recognize one to four items. This skill (called subitizing) prepares them for grade school—to do math problems quickly and deal with the more complex number and counting skills.

Children also need to learn the language of math. Not only numbers, but words that describe, compare, contrast. That is, the words used to talk about math concepts. Words that name shapes and colors. Words such as big, smallest, and furthest. Words such as item, article, and thing. Children need to be able to describe where one thing is in relation to another. A child needs to hear a word about 200 times in context before they understand the meaning and usage of that word. Keep talking!

Most children learn to read in a series of linear steps. They form print awareness first and then build skills progressively from there. Learning math concepts works in a different way. A child may be strong in one area of math but weak in another. A child may be good at size comparison but still need practice counting. Or a child may be good at counting but have trouble using words (language) to compare items. Build on the strengths while supporting the weaker areas.

Research shows that early math exposure is crucial for later success in school. The more math-oriented activities kids do before kindergarten, the better they’ll understand math in school. Early math skills foretell higher aptitude in high school math and higher rates of college enrollment. Now is the time to build a positive foundation for math.

Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

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