Teaching Math Skills

Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about which skills kids need to succeed in school or in the work world, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach their kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? I(‘m not talking math drills and flash cards and pushing academics here! I’m talking about playing with numbers like we “play” with words and stories.)

Here are some opportunities and resources (click on the links to learn more):

Hands-On Activities to Teach Core Math Skills

  • Counting / Number Sense
    • You can count almost anything – how many blocks in your tower, how many goldfish crackers on your plate, how many books do we get at the library
    • You can ask: who has more? Divide objects into two piles – which is bigger?
    • Set the table – each person gets one plate, one spoon, five berries, etc.
    • Count money – it’s trickier to get the different values of different coins.
  • Representation – recognizing that the numeral 5 and the word five can be used as symbols to represent how many physical objects you have
    • Play with magnetic numbers, puzzle pieces shaped like numbers, make numbers with play-dough, draw numbers in the sand,
    • Do connect the dot puzzles, do physical games where they have to jump from the paper numbered one to two to three
    • Make number cards with the numeral and word written on them. When you count physical objects, have them find the card the shows the total.
  • Shapes and Spatial Relationships
    • Play with shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, blocks, building toys. Make crafts.
    • Talk about (and play games with) positional words: under, next to, between…
  • Measurement
    • Cook together, using a recipe.
    • Compare things: line up in order by size.
    • Measure with standard units (8 inches) and non-standard (12 paper clips long)
  • Patterns
    • Help them notice sequence: first we do X, then Y. After ____, we always _____.
    • Sort laundry and pair the socks. Separate M&M’s by color, then make a pattern.
    • Build patterns: red bead, yellow bead, red…  Clap rhythm patterns.

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities! Or go to http://articles.extension.org/pages/25598/young-childrens-developing-math-skills

Sing Counting Songs and Read Counting Books

  • Math Songs. Counting songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…) You can find a huge collection of math songs for all ages at www.songsforteaching.com/numberscounting.htm

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation: Check out the blog http://talkingmathwithkids.com/ It has examples of math concepts into conversations with kids in an engaging way. More ideas: https://bstockus.wordpress.com/talking-math-with-kids/ and http://prek-math-te.stanford.edu/overview/math-thinking-conversations.

Bedtime Math: Every night, before or after the bedtime story, add in a math story problem.

You could make up your own. They could be based on your day (“Today at dinner, there were 8 slices of pizza. You ate two, and I ate three. How many did Dad eat?”). They could be based on the book you just read. (“The Cat in the Hat is holding a book, an umbrella and a fish bowl. How many things is that?” “How many pieces of fruit did the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat?”

Or, you can download the Bedtime Math app (it’s free!) or buy a Bedtime Math book if you prefer a screen free option. They offer a new kid-friendly story problem every day, with questions appropriate for three different levels of math skills, for kids age 3 – 9.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills. For younger kids, keep the score simple – one basket equals one point. For older kids, make the scoring more challenging: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.” When watching sports in person or on TV, have your child keep a written score tally.

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food, try these games. Hide 2 – 5 sugar packets behind your menu. Lift the menu to briefly show them the items, put it back down, and ask how many they saw. Tap on the table 1 – 6 times, and have them set out that many packets. “There are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”

Board games are my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice their learning math. Research shows that the more board games that a kid played and the more different settings he played games in, the better his performance in four math tasks.

Let them see you using math. Point out to your child when you use math – to calculate a tip, compare the cost of two items, figure out how long it will take to drive somewhere, or to help them decide what to buy with their allowance. (For a discussion of financial literacy for kids and how to handle allowance: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/02/09/financial-literacy/)

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feel like you need to get flash cards, math apps and workbooks and drill basic math facts over and over. Let math be fun at home, not a terrible bore.
  • Don’t try to push kids along faster – push them deeper – rather than moving on to the next step on the math skills checklist as fast as you can, make sure you’ve really explored each step in depth first. For example, some parents want to toddler to count to 20, so they push them fast. It takes a long time for a toddler to really truly understand the difference between one and more than one. And then to understand the difference between one and two, and more than two. Let them stay there till they really get it, and then they’ll be able to master more complicated ideas in the future. But rush this one, and everything is confusing from there on out!

My other blog, Inventors Of Tomorrow, is about teaching STEM skills to kids. I have more details there. Start with the post on developmental stages of math learning.

Preschool Choice Time

choiceThe holidays are over. You’re ready to sit back and relax.

Then suddenly you start seeing ads for preschool fairs, and lectures on choosing a preschool, your parent educator tells you the discussion topic is preschool, friends ask you if you’ve decided what you’re doing next year, and other parents tell you that you need to think about it NOW before all the best places fill up.

It can be very stressful!

Let’s take a deep breath, and take a few moments to reflect on this decision-making process.

If your child will be 3 or older on September 1, then it could be a good year for you to start preschool. (But you don’t necessarily have to.) And January and February are prime time for preschool open houses, and for enrollment to begin, so now is a good time to think about it. (Though, truly, if you don’t think about it till August, you’ll still have good options.)

If your child will still be younger than 3 this September, you don’t have to make any decisions yet about their future preschool. But now is a good time to check out some of those preschool fairs, just to get some sense of what options are available in your area, when  there’s no pressure to make any firm decisions.

Check out these posts for things to think about:

First decide: Is preschool necessary? Is it something you want for your child?

If you decide you’re looking, the first thing to think about is logistics: What do you need in a preschool in terms of location, schedule, cost, and so on. What are your goals for preschool?

Then, research your options. Have you considered cooperative preschool? outdoor preschool? specialty preschools (e.g. bilingual or religious)? academic preschool or play-based learning? multi-age programs?

Then visit, or attend an open house, and ask these questions to learn more.

After you’ve done all the research with your head, narrowing it down to the list of the best three options, then listen to your heart. Which school feels best to you? Where will your child be happiest? From the science of brain development, we know that we all learn best when we feel safe and happy – our brains have a high degree of neuroplasticity and we can absorb all the teacher has to teach. In the end, it’s that happiness and preserving the love of learning that will serve our child’s educational future the best.

photo credit: JoshSchulz via photopin cc

Making Music: How it Benefits Early Learning

When parents attend our parent-child classes with their children, they may think of the songs we sing at circle time as one of the fun and enjoyable parts of class, but they may not realize just how much important learning is going on. When children actively participate in making music (whether that’s a baby bouncing to rhythm, a toddler shaking their bells, a preschooler singing along, or an elementary age child playing an instrument), here’s how they benefit:

Music Skills: Of course, they begin learning musical skills, such as rhythm, varying tempo and pitch, and how to echo back what they hear. They learn to use their singing voice and play instruments.

Auditory Processing: They learn how to listen. Children who have music lessons respond to sounds more quickly, distinguish between sounds, and pay attention to sounds, all of which aids in learning.

Language: When listening to and singing songs, there’s lots of language learning. They learn to hear the rhythm of language, the break between syllables and words, hear and predict rhymes, work on pronunciation, and get exposed to a wide ranging vocabulary – from the water spout the spider climbs up to the pockets full of posey and the fleece on Mary’s lamb. Singing the alphabet song and singing about 5 little ducks who went out one day teach letter and number sequences.

Vestibular Development: With babies and toddlers, when we hold them in our arms while we dance, or hold them in our laps for lap songs, like the Grand Old Duke of York, all that bouncing up and down, swaying side to side, and even flipping upside down helps to develop their vestibular system – the system that helps them to balance and know their position.

Large Motor: When kids dance, clap, swing their arms, roll arms to Wheels on the Bus, shake the shaker or bang the drum, they’re learning large motor movements – new ways of using their bodies.

Small motor: As children learn to use more sophisticated instruments, starting with triangles and rhythm sticks, moving up to keyboards, and then stringed instruments or wind instruments, they develop precise fine motor skills. They can then apply these in lots of other areas of life.

Steady Beat: By the age of 3 or 4, children should know how to keep a beat, but most do not. Steady beat helps with a huge array of physical tasks which are easier and/or more effective with rhythm: walking, dancing, dribbling a ball, rowing a boat, typing on a keyboard, cutting vegetables, jumping rope, cutting with scissors and much more. Also, research shows kids with the ability to keep a steady beat pay attention for longer periods and do better in school.

Keeping Time / Math: Music enhances brain development in areas tied to counting, organization, time, and division of larger notes into smaller notes (i.e. fractions).

Impulse Control: When we take our shakers and we “shake and we shake and we shake and we stop”, kids are learning impulse control and following directions. How do we stop doing something when told to stop, and how do we wait till we’re told it’s time to start again? These are key skills for success at school and life.

Predicting what comes next / pattern recognition: When you sing the same song to your child over and over, they learn to expect what is coming next… “After mom says ‘with a one step, and a two step’ she’s gong to tickle me!” This helps them learn to understand cause / effect, and routines.

Emotional Intelligence: In Brain Rules for Babies, John Medina describes how when a child learns to recognize different musical tones, they also learn to recognize different emotional tones, and can tell more about how others feel. Young babies who were exposed to music classes had improved communication: more likely to point to objects, wave goodbye, smile, and show less distress.

Attachment: Music can foster emotional attachment. Even when babies are still in the womb, music can be a way to make a connection – they will respond to your voice. After birth, your family’s songs start becoming familiar and recognizable, and a part of their safe and secure environment.

Tradition: Music is a unique and powerful way for children to connect to their roots. An African-American spiritual, a Yiddish or Irish lullaby, a Mexican folk song… all introduce a child to the family’s heritage in a way that goes beyond words or pictures.

Routines / Transitions: Familiar songs create a sense of comfort for a child. No matter where you are, you always have access to this same familiar tune. Many parents and teachers learn the value of songs for reinforcing routines (“this is the song we always sing at bedtime”) and signaling that it’s time to transition from one activity to the next (the cleanup song!).

Memory: Research has shown that children who’ve taken music lessons have a better ability to repeat back and to remember what they hear or read. Teaching information in a song form also makes it easier for kids to remember – make up a little song to help them memorize your phone number!

Practice group skills: Sitting at circle time, listening to the teacher, participating when asked, figuring out when they’re supposed to just sit quietly (and learning how to just sit quietly!), starting an activity when all the other children do and stopping when they do are all important steps in school readiness.

IQ and academic success: Research has shown that children who participate in music lessons have higher IQ’s, do better in school, and score better on standardized tests. The more years of music lessons they take, the better they do.

Fun: One of the biggest reasons we have music in our classes is because it is fun! Making music with others gives us all joy. The smiles and giggles in music time delight parents, children, and teachers.

Resources I’ve compiled

Other Resources

  • King County library – videos of librarians singing 100’s of classic children’s rhymes. http://kcls.org/content
  • Jbrary – a YouTube channel featuring children’s librarians singing songs, lap songs, and finger rhymes from library story times: www.youtube.com/user/Jbrary/videos.
  • Nancy Stewart – lyrics and .mp3 audio recordings of lots of traditional songs, including “songs every child should know” http://singwithourkids.com/song-library.htm. Recommended books which include songs, or have rhythmic text that can be sung, to reinforce early literacy skills: http://singwithourkids.com/bookshelf.htm.
  • Let’s Play Music – Over 150 songs, each with lyrics, sheet music, a video of the tune played on a xylophone and motions to go along with the song. www.letsplaykidsmusic.com
  • YouTube has a huge collection of animated videos featuring traditional and new children’s songs, in a wide range of languages. Quality ranges tremendously, and many are inappropriate for children; however, there are some great ones if you search and preview and make your own playlists.

If you would like a printable version of this information to hand out, here’s the Music Benefits PDF.