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preschool math
Building with toys is one way experts say children can develop spatial skills. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Most parents know how important it is to expose young children to letters, words and books. But math? Not so much. A new study has found many parents underestimate their child’s math ability, missing out on early opportunities to build skills.

The study surveyed 63 parents of preschoolers about their support of numeracy, spatial and pattern skills at home. It was conducted by Erica Zippert, a postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and her co-author, Bethany Rittle-Johnson. They found many parents only focus on simple math concepts like counting and naming numerals, even though preschool-age children are capable of learning more complex topics like comparing and combining numbers, creating patterns and exploring dimensions. Activities that nurture these more complicated skills, like doing mazes and playing games that involve patterns, are far more rare at home, the parents reported.

Zippert said the tendency to focus more on numbers than other math topics may be due in part to a lack of parent knowledge. “I’m not sure that [parents] know that these skills are important,” Zippert said. Some parents may believe their child is uninterested, or that they aren’t capable of mastering the skill yet, Zippert added. The study found that parents provided more extensive math support around numeracy and patterning if they believed their child was able to understand those concepts.

“Kids are coming to school with such variability in their math knowledge…Parents can make a difference.”

Exposure to a variety of math topic is important because kids will be better prepared for school. “Kids are coming to school with such variability in their math knowledge,” Zippert said. “Parents can make a difference.”

There are easy ways for parents and other caregivers to incorporate topics beyond counting into their day-to-day routines, Zippert said. These include:

  • Spatial toys: Blocks and puzzles are easy ways to infuse spatial concepts in play. Parents can ask children to identify sides and corners and describe the location of objects.
  • Games: Board games and card games that involve counting, addition and introduce symbols like spades and clubs help reinforce early math skills and improve children’s number knowledge.
  • Math in everyday life: Bring math concepts into your conversation as you go about your day. For example, point out clothes in a store that have stripes on them. Ask children to describe what the pattern would look like if it continued. Have children create patterns with objects they have, like colorful socks.

Zippert said while it’s important to introduce these concepts, parents shouldn’t stress about how often they are working on math. Instead, they should focus more on the quality of conversations. “It’s not just how often you’re focusing on these skills, but that you’re doing it at the right way and right time,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about preschool math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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