I often wonder if my children will get my best or worst traits. From physical appearance to my affinity or disdain for certain foods, I marvel at how genetics works. When it comes to math ability, you might be surprised to hear that genetics is not a factor.
I was teaching high school math while pregnant with my first child, when one of my students said, “Well, at least your kid will be good at math.” The myth is pervasive; we tend to think there are “math people” and then everyone else. But it’s not true. Even though I secretly hoped that the nine months of in-utero math lessons my child endured would pay off, I’ve learned that parents have the ability every day to help children develop math reasoning skills and a positive math identity, even if it’s not their strength. If you’d like to support your child with math at home, try these suggestions.
REFRAME WHAT MATH IS. Sure, math is about numbers, computation, fractions and equations, but it’s also about shapes, spatial reasoning, problem solving and patterns. When you plan a trip around the grocery store to avoid the cookie aisle, but also steer clear of the ice cream aisle, you’re doing math (graph theory). You’re also doing math when you pack the trunk of a car, a diaper bag or your child’s lunch box (spatial reasoning). You’re doing math when you notice patterns, whether it’s music, gardening, artwork or roads. Math is really just the study of patterns.
ENGAGE. Start noticing math all around you. Pick a pattern and ask your child what they see; find something that needs to be packed up and ask your child how she would do it; or plan a route to a destination and ask your child which way she would go. Here are more game prompts:
- Which one doesn’t belong? This game works well with most objects, but imagine a circle, square, triangle and line. Ask kids, “Which one do you think doesn’t belong and why?” I love this prompt because there is often more than one possible answer. Check out the “Which One Doesn’t Belong” website for more puzzles and ideas: www.wodb.ca.
- What’s the same? What’s different? Anytime you compare things, these two questions kick your brain into high mathematical gear. Pick two pictures, cars, houses or toys, and consider what characteristics are the same. Name as many things as you can. Then, with the same two things, consider what’s different about them. Come up with as many answers as possible. Not only does this exercise support the game “Which One Doesn’t Belong,” it also helps build an understanding of complicated relationships between two things—multiple angles and perspectives to consider—and supports the mathematical idea of sets.
- What’s next? Whether you notice a pattern around you, or create a pattern with letters, blocks, toy cars or other objects, ask kids, “What’s next in the pattern?” This exercise helps build awareness of patterns and what makes them unique.
LET CURIOSITY LEAD. Kids are born curious. Something magical happens when kids get to explore things they’re really curious about. Teachers may not always be able to let curiosity drive math investigation, so implement it at home to foster interest and development outside the classroom.
GO ON A MATH SCAVENGER HUNT. San Diego Family created a free, printable scavenger hunt that helps families with kids ages 4–10 notice patterns, numbers, shapes and more around the house or neighborhood. Click the image to download and print it.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE FOR PARENTS: Math trauma is a real thing. If you had math experiences that trigger a negative emotional response or make you panic at the sight of fractions, there is still hope for your kids. Here is how to help your own children develop a positive math identity:
- Work to have a positive math attitude. It’s best to avoid saying, “I hated math, too” or “I was never good at math.” While the sentiments may be true, try to find another way to talk about math that doesn’t perpetuate negativity.
- Avoid the rush. Slow down—there’s no need to do math quickly. Some of the most well-known and respected mathematicians will say they’re not fast at math. Being good at math doesn’t mean being fast, so take away the timers and races if it doesn’t feel good to your child. Find ways to highlight taking time and having perseverance in solving problems. It’s an important habit to lean into as children grow in math and beyond.
- Play. Puzzling and problem solving can be fun and playful. “What books are to reading, play is to math,” says Dan Finkel, math educator and game creator. We already know how to encourage a love of reading; the same can be done for math. Play fun problem-solving games to help children associate math with joy.
Audrey Mendivil is the district advisor for math curriculum and instruction for the San Diego County Office of Education. Find resources for Play Math! at www.sdcoe.net/educators/curriculum-instruction/mathematics.