You use measuring cups when you cook. You cut sandwiches into triangles, quarters, and halves. You count cars in the toy box, pair up socks when you do the wash, and group items by size and color when you put the laundry away.
Now, Purdue University scientists have discovered a surprising link between kids’ engagement in math activities at home and its potential to fire up language skills in children. The findings indicate that exposure to basic math, in the house, with you nearby, boosts kids’ vocabulary, said Amy Napoli, a doctoral student at Purdue’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies in West Lafayette, Indiana, who led the research. In the study, scientists assessed the math and language skills of 116 preschool children in the fall and spring of an academic year. They then compared those findings with the parents’ reports about math and language practices in the house. What they learned: “Exposure to basic numbers and math concepts at home were predictive, even more so than storybook reading or other literacy-rich interactions, of improving preschool children’s general vocabulary,” researcher Napoli said.
Understandably, the findings may rattle parents who feel more comfortable chatting about letters than numbers.
“We tend to repeat positive experiences, such as cuddling up with a book. So, it could be that parents don’t associate positive experiences with math,” said Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive, and director of Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York City. Dr. Klein was not involved in the study.
Added David Purpura, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue, and senior author of the study: “It’s never too early to talk about numbers and quantities. One of the first words young children learn is more.”
So the good news for parents is you don’t have to be a genius to introduce math to children. You don’t have to leave the house, buy books, or get a tutor to give your kids a math and verbal edge.
Try these practical idea starters.
1. Tackle laundry. Make laundry count and make it more exciting. “You can literally talk about math and numbers anywhere,” said Purdue’s Dr. Napoli. Ask your child to create one pile of shirts and one of socks. Practice estimation by asking which pile is larger. Then together count the shirts and socks. “Anytime a child is counting, that is math learning,” Dr. Klein said. At home, practice grouping. Sort laundry by type, size, and color. Ask your child which shirt is bigger. Say, “Here is your little blue sock. Can you find another little blue sock to make a pair?”
2. Upend the kitchen. Use measuring cups, spoons, and other utensils to introduce words such as whole, half, full, empty, quarters, squares, and circles, and to discuss fractions, shapes, and numbers. Ask your child, “Can you help me fill this cup halfway with flour?” or “Can you measure one teaspoonful of sugar?” or even, “Let’s stir this mixture five times.” And don’t forget to sequence. Remind your child, “First, we have to mix all the wet ingredients together, then the dry ones.”
Also, use words like more, less, bigger, smaller, more than, and less than. Build in time for baking. Tell your child, “We need seven more chocolate chips to make a perfect chocolate-chip cookie.” Continue math talk as you gobble up your efforts. “Talk about subtraction as you eat the finished product,” Napoli said.
3. Plan a shindig. Patterns are part of math, so use household supplies to reinforce basic math concepts before a birthday bash or family dinner.Have your child match the plastic cups with the same color paper plates. Or switch it up and have your child place one blue cup and one blue plate together on a placemat. It’s all math.
This is also a great time to discuss one-to-one correspondence, said Napoli. Count the number of balloons and party favors you’ll hand out. Is it even? Do you have one balloon and one favor for everyone? “It doesn’t matter if children get the right answer,” said Susan Friedman, Senior Director, Content Strategy and Development, National Association for the Education of Young Children. “What matters is exploring, engaging in math activities and math talk, persisting and trying again.”