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Parents can use everyday tasks and routines to encourage learning maths in early childhood. OnlyZoia/Shutterstock

Eleven games and activities for parents to encourage maths in early learning

How can parents best help their children with their schooling without actually doing it for them? This article is part of our series on Parents’ Role in Education, focusing on how best to support learning from early childhood to Year 12.

Before beginning official schooling, parents can give their young children a boost in learning mathematics by noticing, exploring and talking about maths during everyday activities at home or out and about.

New research shows that parents play a key role in helping their children learn mathematics concepts involving time, shape, measurement and number. This mathematical knowledge developed before school is predictive of literacy and numeracy achievements in later grades.

One successful approach for strengthening the role of parents in mathematics learning is Let’s Count, implemented by The Smith Family. This builds on parents’ strengths and capabilities as the first mathematics educators of their children.

The Let’s Count longitudinal evaluation findings show that when early years educators encourage parents and families to confidently notice, explore and talk about mathematics in everyday activities, their young children’s learning flourishes.

Indeed, children whose families had taken part in Let’s Count showed greater mathematical skills than those in a comparison group whose families had not participated. For example, they were more successful with correctly making a group of seven (89% versus 63%); continuing patterns (56% versus 34%); and counting collections of 20 objects (58% versus 37%).

These findings, among many others, are a strong endorsement of the power of families helping their children to learn about mathematics in everyday contexts.

What parents can do to promote maths every day

Discussing and exploring mathematics with children requires no special resources. Instead, what is needed is awareness and confidence for parents about how to engage.

However, our research shows that one of the biggest barriers to this is parents’ lack of confidence in leading maths education at home.

Through examining international research, we identified the type of activities that are important for early maths learning which are easy for parents to use. These include:

  1. Comparing objects and describing which is longer, shorter, heavier, or holds less.

  2. Playing with and describing 2D shapes and 3D objects.

  3. Describing where things are positioned, for example, north, outside, behind, opposite.

  4. Describing, copying, and extending patterns found in everyday situations.

  5. Using time-words to describe points in time, events and routines (including days, months, seasons and celebrations).

  6. Comparing and talking about the duration of everyday events and the sequence in which they occur.

  7. Saying number names forward in sequence to ten (and eventually to 20 and beyond).

  8. Using numbers to describe and compare collections.

  9. Using perceptual and conceptual subitising (recognising quantities based on visual patterns), counting and matching to compare the number of items in one collection with another.

  10. Showing different ways to make a total (at first with models and small numbers).

  11. Matching number names, symbols and quantities up to ten.

Games to play using everyday situations

Neuroscience research has provided crucial evidence about the importance of early nurturing and support for learning, brain development, and the development of positive dispositions for learning.

Early brain development or “learning” is all about the quality of children’s sensory and motor experiences within positive and nurturing relationships and environments. This explains why programs such as Let’s Count are successful.

Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with activities and games to play that boost children’s mathematics learning, but there are plenty. For example, talk with your children as you prepare meals together. Talk about measuring and comparing ingredients and amounts.

You can play children’s card games and games involving dice, such as Snakes and Ladders, or maps, shapes and money. You can also read stories and notice the mathematics – the sequence of events, and the descriptions of characters and settings.

Although these activities may seem simple and informal, they build on what children notice and question, give families the chance to talk about mathematical ideas and language, and show children that maths is used throughout the day.

Parents are encouraged to provide learning opportunities that are engaging and relevant to their children.

Make it relevant to them

Most importantly, encouraging maths and numeracy in young children relies on making it appealing and relevant to them.

For example, when you take your child for a walk down the street, in the park or on the beach, bring their attention to the objects around them – houses, cars, trees, signs.

Talk about the shapes and sizes of the objects, talk about and look for similarities and differences (for example: let’s find a taller tree or a heavier rock), count the number of cars parked in the street or time how long it takes to reach the next corner.

Discuss the temperature or the speed of your walking pace.

Collect leaves or shells, and make repeating patterns on the sand or grass, or play Mathematical I Spy (I spy with my little eye, something that’s taller than mum).

It is never too soon to begin these activities. Babies who are only weeks old notice differences in shapes and the number of objects in their line of sight.

So, from the earliest of ages, talk with your child about the world around them, being descriptive and using mathematical words. As they grow, build on what they notice about shapes, numbers, and measures. This is how you teach them mathematics.

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