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Q&A with Deborah Stipek: building early math skills

June 10, 2014
Too Small to Fail
GSE Dean Deborah Stipek details why early math is important for children to learn before they enter school and how parents can help give their kids a good start in math.
Deborah Stipek

What is “early math”? 

Parents should think of math as a continuum that begins very early in life and continues through school. You can begin teaching math concepts in infancy, and adjust how you teach your child depending on what he or she understands. For example, after she learns to count to 10, you might add a few new numbers. If he can recognize shapes, you might focus on teaching the defining characteristics (e.g., triangles always have three sides, but it doesn’t matter how long each side is or what direction it is pointing). 

Early math is about understanding basic number and spatial concepts, and identifying patterns. For example, early math includes understanding one-to-one correspondence – that when you are counting objects, you count each object only once. Young children can learn number sequence and to recognize written numerals. These are the building blocks that help children develop later skills used in operations like addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

Children can begin learning geometry concepts by learning the names of shapes and how each one looks. They can also learn spatial vocabulary (terms like “in front of,” “next to,” “above,” “closest”) and order (first, second, third). And they can learn to notice patterns, such as in the color of beads strung on a string, and sounds (e.g., one short drum beat, followed by two long, followed by one short)

Children learn math when they enter school, so why is it important for them to start learning math at a young age?

We talk a lot about literacy, but not nearly as much about math. The truth is that young children enjoy learning math and what they learn before school lays the foundation for future math learning.  Addition and subtraction, for example, don’t make sense if children don’t understand one-to-one correspondence. It is best to teach them these concepts early on when they are most interested in learning them.

Several studies show that children’s math skills when they enter school are very strong predictors of their academic success later on. One study showed that math skills upon kindergarten entry predicted children’s reading abilities in third grade as well as their reading skills at kindergarten entry. While children can learn beginning math skills after they enter kindergarten, they will be at a disadvantage.

What is the best way to introduce young children to math?

Children learn best during playful, everyday activities, like counting their toes, the buttons on their shirt, the steps they walk up. They can be asked to count out how many forks are needed to help set the table. Shape hunts through the house can be fun (the clock is a circle; the TV is a rectangle). Children can learn about the importance of numbers by doing a number hunt, with a discussion of how the numbers on the telephone, clock, or elevator are useful.

It is important that parents help children find enjoyment in math. As soon as children start feeling pressure to learn something, then they may become anxious or it will take away their enjoyment. And parents should try to find the fun in math, even if they didn’t like it in school. Parents who model enjoyment of math activities will help their young children build enthusiasm for it.

Read the entire article at Too Small To Fail.

Deborah Stipek is the I. James Quillen Dean and Judy Koch Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

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