Want to build your child’s mathematical power? Awaken your child’s curiosity and sense of enquiry by using their mathematical brains in their everyday lives.
Young children think mathematically in the course of their day-to-day lives without realising it. They “do maths” when they measure and graph the daily growth of bean seedlings, when they notice the changing patterns of shadows on a wall, when they compare their own height to that of the dog, or when they predict how many more cups of sand it will take to fill a hole and then check by counting.
The goal of early mathematics education should be to build “mathematical power” in young children. This power has three components: firstly, a positive disposition to learning and using mathematics, secondly an understanding and an appreciation of the importance of mathematics, and lastly engaging in the process of mathematical enquiry.
Turning children’s early and spontaneous mathematics play into an awareness of mathematical concepts and skills is an area where the parents can make a significant contribution. Here are some ways to get started:
Raise questions about objects and events around you
Encourage children to use arithmetic to answer their own questions. For example, suppose your child says, “Daddy wants to know how many cupcakes to bring to school for my birthday tomorrow.” You could reply,`”Well, there are sixteen children and two teachers, plus your daddy and brother will be there. How can we figure out how many cupcakes he’ll need to bring?”
You can pose measurement challenges that children will be motivated to solve. For example, “I wonder how many cups of soil it will take to fill the pot?” Wait for your child to answer, then count as you start filling and, if her answer falls short, ask, “How many more?” If your child is drawing a train track, try asking, “How many more pieces of track will you need to close the circle?”
If your child is good at recognising two-dimensional shapes, take the opportunity to give him or her experiences with three-dimensional shapes, which can allow them to focus their attention on geometrical features. For example, explore the connection between the motion of a rolling pin (3D) and a circle (2D).
Use living creatures and nature as examples
Let children see changes in their own bodies, for instance measuring themselves as they get taller or observing the growth of a flower. Although they are often unable to identify the reason accurately, young children do make tentative guesses, both right and wrong, about the changes they see. For example, “I’m five today. That means I’m taller.”
Give your children scenarios and encourage them to predict the outcome, record their predictions and then compare them with the results. This can be a fun game. You could offer your child a small pitcher of water and tell him how much it weighs. Then have him lift the cat and guess if it is lighter or heavier, then put the cat on the scales and measure its weight. Whether it was more, less or the same as his prediction, he’ll be thinking and the two of you will be relating to each other while also making mathematical connections.
Call your child’s attention to cycles in nature by pointing out the seasonal variations in your backyard plants or the changing weight of clothing from summer to winter.
Observing characteristics and properties
Encourage your children to make collections of natural objects they bring home from school or the neighbourhood. Provide containers (bowls, boxes, baskets) for them to sort the items. Have them explain and describe their collection. Make conversation by asking why another item might not fit into the categories they have created. “Would this one fit here? Why not?”
Young children enjoy hearing and learning names such as cylinder and trapezoid. Encourage the exploration of shapes beyond conventional ones such as circles, squares and triangles. Even if they do not fully grasp the meaning and characteristics, they become attuned to the variety of spatial phenomena in the world. It is also important to give children diverse examples of triangles and other shapes, not just the equilateral triangle.
Create occasions for children to see how shapes can transform. For example, when cooking together hold the top end of a round dough ball, and have your child pull the lower end and see how the shape changes.
Simple tools to extend observations
Provide conventional and unconventional measuring devices, and encourage your children to use them to answer questions or solve problems. Conventional devices include rulers, tape measures, clocks, kitchen timers, or spring and balance scales. Unconventional measuring tools could be string or paper towel tubes for length, sand timers for duration, grocery bags for volume, unmarked bags of clay or sand for weight. Children can also develop their own devices. When children ask measurement-related questions like “which is heavier?” or have disputes about who is tallest in a group of friends, ask them which of these tools might help them arrive at an answer or solution.
Recognise simple patterns
Children often spontaneously create patterns in art and construction projects. When they are busy building, acknowledge their work with a smile and a descriptive statement such as, “I see a pattern in your tower. First you used two rectangles, then you used a cylinder, and then you added two more rectangles and a cylinder”. Or, “This reminds me of the Eiffel Tower. It’s wide at the bottom and becomes narrow at the top.”
Gather and interpret data in practical ways
“How many bags of dog food do we need to feed Tommy for one month?” Focus on things of particular interest to children, such as their bodies (height, age, hair colour), animals and nature (pets, objects they find outside), the dimensions of things they build, and what they and their friends like and dislike (foods, favourite story characters). For example, chart the ingredients children like best in trail mix, and use the data to make snacks in proportion to their tastes.
Work collaboratively with others
It’s easy to create opportunities for group construction projects, such as laying out a garden or making a space for each bed for a sleepover. These often lead to situations where children have different opinions and need to “measure” to find out which solution will work best. To resolve the differences of opinion, encourage your children to reflect on their arithmetic solutions rather than telling them if they’re right or wrong. If they get stumped or arrive at erroneous answers, resist the temptation to give the answer or correct them. Instead, offer comments or pose questions that encourage them to rethink their solutions.
Positive experiences with using mathematics to solve problems can help children to develop curiosity, imagination, flexibility, inventiveness and persistence. These skills could well contribute to their future success – in school as well as in life.
Words by Manu Verma
Updated September 2020
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