If you're at all worried about how to prepare your young child's math skills before school starts, you can relax, mama. Teaching the early fundamentals of math is something you can do just by playing games and pointing out math in everyday life.
"You can be really impactful doing very informal, playful experiences that are math-related," Erica Zippert, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar of developmental science at Vanderbilt University, tells Motherly. "These skills are important because they predict later academic achievement, and not just math domain, but in reading as well...You have to have a strong foundation in math in order to learn more challenging things."
In her research into how parents lay the groundwork for their children's understanding of math, she found that many assume it's just about the numbers and counting. But math is also about patterns, shapes, and spatial relations, which parents might not be consciously teaching to young kids.
"Spatial knowledge is important because it early-stage projects later math," Zippert explains. "There are spatial concepts where you have to be able to juggle a lot of things in your head."
Zippert, along with her postdoctoral advisor Bethany Rittle-Johnson, PhD, are currently looking into why studying patterns early helps kids with math, but she has some theories. "There's something about shared reliance on rules and structure in both math and patterning, the idea of predicting what comes next."
While teaching your children skills is important, you don't have to force your 4-year-old to sit still while you instruct her.
Zippert has found that once parents have these guidelines in their toolkit, they can bring them up in a way that engages their young brains:
1. Play games.
Classic board games, like Chutes and Ladders, and card games like War are perfect for combining number cues with space.
2. Use blocks and puzzles.
This is one of the easiest ways for children to learn spatial dimensions, locations, and directions.
3. Point out numbers, patterns and spatial relationships in everyday life.
Ask your child to fold the laundry with you and arrange the socks in a simple pattern (such as, red, blue, red, blue). Notice the patterns in a nursery rhyme or a song. Talk about the direction you're driving, the spatial features of household objects, and the numbers on street signs.
"There's different little ways to entertain your kid and entertain yourself that can really focus on math," Zippert says.
Parents don't actually have to call these concepts "math." But if they can cultivate a child's curiosity and give them a good introduction to these concepts, they might find themselves with a kid who will enthusiastically embrace that term later in life.