The Importance of Math Before Kindergarten

When I founded CEFA Early Learning schools and designed the curriculum more than 25 years ago, I was very clear that children wouldn’t be learning things just for the sake of knowing them. For example, being able to name every type of dinosaur that ever roamed the earth, or distinguish which ones were carnivores and which ones were not. Before I add anything to the curriculum, I ask myself:

  • Is it something the child, at this age, would benefit from knowing?
  • Will it help them develop their brains? Their emotions? Their general development as a person?

If so, then it is considered a valuable addition to the curriculum, and the knowledge itself would be essential to the child at that particular stage in their development.

I am explaining this because in reading this article about how to teach your child math before school, you may wonder if it is truly necessary. After all, many children only learn math once they get to kindergarten, so why rush yours? I want assure you that the activities I am suggesting for you and your child will only benefit them in their development.

Learning mathematics in the early years is as crucial as language skills, physical skills or social skills. Your child, from birth, is trying to understand the world around them, and math offers them the tools to organize the information they learn, amongst other things. Math is involved in every other skill in life, and according to recent research, math language is an even stronger predictor of school success than language skills on their own.

But does this mean that your child must begin formal math lessons at two? No. At our schools, everything we introduce as a concept, we introduce through play, or through language. I will show you how you can do that from home. In fact, I am sure that you are already doing it. You are teaching your child math when you ask them; to bring you the blue plate (colours); to put away all the cups (grouping, sorting, quantities); if they would like a big apple or a small one (measurement, estimation); a few grapes or a lot of grapes.

You may also be surprised to learn that, even without your help, your child is already using early math skills throughout their daily routines. Early math, however, doesn’t mean they are sitting at the table doing multiplication tables. It means they become interested in quantities (for example, they want the cup with more milk, not the one with less), in attributes (small or big), and even in counting. According to research, by the time children go to kindergarten, they already have a notion of how to add and subtract. This comes from sharing toys, organizing things and making sense of the world around them. The math your child learns in the early years provides a strong foundation for the rest of their life. You can help your child build a strong foundation by reinforcing key math concepts essential for your child to understand math during the school years. Those skills are number sense, representation, spatial sense, measurement, estimation, patterns and problem-solving.

How to Add Math to Your Child’s Daily Activities Without Detracting From Play Time
You can find fun and educational math games right here on my website that you can do with your child. You can also help your child learn early math skills by building on their natural curiosity and incorporating it to their daily activities and routines. Below I have shared a few ways you can do that.

Use Math Language
Starting with newborns, you can read stories to your child using lots of repetition, numbers and rhymes. Not sure what words are math words? Here is a list for zero to six-year old’s. You can introduce them as your child feels ready, increasing in amount and complexity. In order to learn language, newborns and young children must be exposed to books, signing, rhymes and fingerplays, lots of repetition and conversation. For math language, choose books, rhymes and fingerplays that have numbers, shapes, colours and sizes. As well as introducing language, social skills and vocabulary, songs reinforce patterns an essential math skill.

Find and Name Shapes Everywhere
From birth, you can talk to your child about shapes through books, or in daily conversation. Starting at age 1, you can introduce your child to toys like shape sorters and blocks (here are a few examples I would recommend). You can also use cereal boxes, cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls or any container to provide your child with an assortment of shapes to play with, and even use them as blocks! Stacking and manipulating shapes helps your child learn about them, and the relationship between them (for example, two squares joined together make a rectangle). Let them feel the shapes with all their senses: mouthing the toys, stacking them, pushing them around, listening to see if they make any sounds – the more ways the better. When you play together remember to:

  • Name the shapes
  • Count the sides they have
  • Describe the colours
  • See if they stack (for example, triangles and circles or spheres don’t stack)
  • See if they roll
  • See if they are pointy

Name shapes wherever you see them: outside, inside, in their room, in a book – anywhere!

While on a walk, teach your child the shape and colour of a STOP sign, so they know that when they see it, it means they have to stop. Build a mystery box and put shapes in it, so your child can recognize shapes using their sense of touch.

Notice and Name All the Colours
From birth, you can talk to your child about colours through books, or in daily conversation. Notice the colours around you and describe things your child sees by also describing their colour (“Do you like this yellow truck?” or “Do you want to take your green duck or your yellow duck to the bath?”, “Do you want to wear your white pajamas or your grey ones?”).

When you play together, name the colour of things, and sort things by colour. When driving or even just walking, notice the colours of the traffic lights, and teach your child what they mean. Slowly, you are helping your child develop a sense for the neighbourhood and understand how to stay safe outside of the house.

Add Spatial Words to Your Vocabulary
Spatial awareness will help your child understand the relationship between objects. You can help by making your vocabulary richer. For example, instead of saying “Here are your socks”, you can enrich your child’s vocabulary by saying “Your socks are right next to your shoes”. Or instead of saying “Let’s leave our boots here” you can say “Let’s leave our boots outside the house because they are wet. If we bring them inside, they will make the floor wet”. Instead of saying “Where do you want to write your name on the page?” you can say “Do you want to write your name on top of the page, on the bottom or on the back of the page?”. Instead of saying “Let’s go this way” you can say “Let’s turn left here, then we can go straight”.

Count Everything, Everywhere
This will build number concepts and an understanding of quantities. If you are waiting in line with your child, count how many people are in front of you, how many are behind you. If you are at the beach, count how many shells you can find. At the park, count the pebbles you are bringing home to play with, the butterflies you see, or the children that are playing at the park. At home, count toys, buttons, pom-poms, fruit, people, count anything you want! Get in the habit of counting, and also of noticing numbers, and adding them to your conversations with your child (for example “There are only two children in the sandbox today” or “Everyone is here for dinner, which means we will need six plates. One, two, three, four, five, six!”).

Whenever possible, ask your child for help around the house. This will not only make them feel valued, it will also help them reinforce their counting skills. For example, when making lunch, ask your child to help you by bringing one cup of water for each person (one-to-one correspondence and counting), and one sandwich. Count with them as they do it: one sandwich for mom, one sandwich for you, one sandwich for me! They can help you with the laundry, and count how many clean socks just came out of the dryer, and how many pairs of pants, etc.

Sort Things
One of the first skills I remember learning as a baby is sorting. My mother and I put away all my toys in a toybox before I went to bed, and the clothes in a basket. I learned to clean and organize my room, and I learned math. When I had my own children, they learned the same way that each night before bed, they cleaned their room by putting their clothes in a basket and their toys in their drawer. As they grew older and were better at sorting, the number of drawers increased: one for Lego, one for puzzles, one for the science set, etc. Sorting is a way for your child to organize things by attribute, which is an essential concept in math. From the time they are babies, children sort the information they learn in their minds. For example, they first sort information into broad categories: things that fly and things that don’t fly. Then they get more specific as they learn about the world around them. Things that fly are sorted into things that fly that are birds, and things that fly that are planes, etc.

You can sort things based on attributes, colour, size, texture (ex: toys that are soft to play with [stuffed animal] versus toys that are not [trucks]). Sort things into categories, for example, big seeds you find during a walk, versus small seeds, or red leaves and yellow leaves. Give your child plenty of things to sort. For example, give them a jar with buttons to sort by size, shape, colour or texture, or cut ribbons different lengths to help them sort by size.

Ask for their help sorting clean laundry or putting a load of laundry on. You can sort the laundry into darks and whites before it goes in the wash, or sort into different categories once it needs to be folded (all the pants together, all the shirts together, all the socks together), help them make pairs with the socks, or sort by family member (this is mom’s shirt, and these are baby’s socks). You can arrange your piles from biggest to smallest, you can also count the items. Laundry is a fun sorting game, and another way to spend time with your child throughout the day.

Measure Everything
From birth, you can talk to your child about measurement through books, or in daily conversation. To raise awareness of measurement concepts like length, weight, height, speed, and temperature, use vocabulary like “Look at this button! It is so much bigger than this one! Do you think we can find an even smaller one? Let’s look in the tin!” or “When you pushed the car down the slide, it went so fast! Much faster than the car that didn’t use the ramp!” You can compare sizes, or even note the sizes of things around you (“That is a tall building!”, “Your shoes are smaller than dad’s shoes, but bigger than your sister’s shoes”. When you play together, name the size or length of things (“Let’s read that tiny book over there on the shelf”) or how long things take (“Let’s put the timer for 11 minutes – that’s how long the egg will take before it’s ready”). Find the biggest, the smallest, sort by size, compare sizes of things, see if your child is bigger than objects or smaller than them, measure your child with the measuring tape or use the measuring tape to see how far down the ramp the toy cars can go – the sky is the limit! You can measure temperature by looking at a thermometer, or simply by commenting “Today is cold, we will need our mittens and out hat to go outside. I am glad it’s warm inside the house!” or “Is your food is too hot for you? Would you like me to add an ice cube to it to make it cooler?”.

Another excellent way to incorporate measurement is to enlist your child’s help in the kitchen, where children can help measure (two cups of flour, two tablespoon of lemon juice), estimate and count as well as other essential skills like pouring, stirring, filling, sorting, organizing, vocabulary and following instructions.

Children are fascinated by hourglasses and timers, you can use them to see how long it takes you to put toys away, to make dinner, or to complete an activity. Measuring how long things take and writing it down or even graphing it, will help your child develop a sense of how long things take, and a sense of time. Also mention the time when appropriate (“It’s noon, time for our lunch!”).

Compare things as you go about your day with your child. This will enrich all of the math skills described in this article. For example, as you play, ask your child if they would like a lot of playdough, or a little playdough. When you eat, ask them if they would like a big portion (a lot of food) or a small portion. When out on a walk, compare how many steps it takes you to get to the next house (or the next block, depending on your child’s enthusiasm for counting) versus how many takes your child. Compare the size and colour of houses, pebbles, cars, flowers, compare textures (“This rock is smooth but this one is rough”). Compare the weight of things, compare animals (“Does the bird have fur like our dog has? What about the shark we saw at the aquarium?”) and their sounds (“Does the cat bark like a dog?”). Compare the distance of things (“Which is closest to our house: the park or the convenience store?”).

You can also count and compare quantities, and build an understanding of operations (early addition and subtraction). You can do this by observing aloud the changing relationships between quantities: For example: “Look, you have 1, 2 cars. I have 1, 2, 3 cars. Now I will give you one of my cars, and you will have 1, 2, 3 cars and I will have 1, 2” or “You ate 2 of your grapes. Now you have 1, 2, 3, 4 grapes left” or “I have 1, 2 slices of apple, I will take 1 more, then I will have 1, 2, 3 slices!”.

Play Patterning Games
Your child can notice patterns from an early age. You can help by describing to your infant what you are doing. For example: First, we changed your diaper, now we are getting your bottle, then it will be sleep time.”.

If your child is older, you can help them notice patterns on their clothing (“Look! Your shirt has a light blue line, then a dark blue line, then a light blue one and again a dark blue one! All the way to the end!”). You can also make patterns with sounds (“Stomp your feet, clap your hands, stomp your feet, clap your hands, stomp your feet, clap your hands.”) or invite your child to play patterning games while you are working or cooking nearby (they need to be supervised as it poses a choking risk).

Patterning is also an essential math skill and is easy to play with your child. There are plenty of patterning games on this website, but you can also use household items, like fruits, for your child to learn about patterns. For example, your child can make patterns with pasta (“One bowtie, one rotini, one bowtie, one rotini…”), with fruits or veggies (“One apple, two bananas, one apple, two bananas…”) or when they are older, with blocks, or Lego.

You can also find patterns in nature and even make graphs (which they can do by age three). For example, your child can use a calendar and stickers (sun and cloud) to graph the weather. For a whole week, your child can put a sun or rain sticker to illustrate the weather during their outdoor walk. If it was sunny, they use a sun sticker (or they can draw a sun) and if it was raining, they can use a cloud sticker (or draw a cloud). At the end of the week, they can estimate whether the week had more sunny days or rainy days, and then count to be sure. It is best to choose the same time to check the weather every day (for example, when you go play outside) as the weather can change many times in one day. You can learn about patterns by making a visual schedule for your child, either with photos or drawings. It can be very simple, with just a few elements:

  • Wake up
  • Breakfast
  • Play
  • Lunch
  • Nap
  • Play outside
  • Dinner
  • Story
  • Bed

Or you can add more things, like school time, or library day, or field trip day. Your child will begin to understand patterns by seeing there is a rhythm, a pattern, to the day.

By the time your child is in grade one, they will need to have the following math foundations to build on: understanding of size, shape, and patterns; ability to recognize numbers and to count verbally; identifying more and less of a quantity; and understanding one-to-one correspondence.

By changing the way you go about our day with your child, and adding rich math vocabulary as we just described, your child will have a strong math foundation to build upon, a rich vocabulary, and a strong bond with you. Have fun!

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