Little kids naturally love counting, sorting, doing puzzles, and discovering patterns. But once these activities get labeled "math," with daily doses of addition, multiplication, fractions, and long division, many children lose both confidence and interest. The standardized math tests that begin in fourth grade just add to the challenge, say experts. To make sure they're prepared, schools tend to introduce students to complex problems before they've mastered the basics. No wonder so many find the subject frustrating -- or that math scores among kids in the United States have declined compared with those of students in other countries. "It's important that young kids be math savvy, so they aren't intimidated when the curriculum accelerates and becomes more challenging," says Patricia Clark Kenschaft, PhD, author of Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math, Even If You Don't. To make sure that happens, don't schedule daily half-hour drills, which will just turn your child off. Instead, find ways to make it fun.
To boost her 8-year-old son Jake's math skills, Beth Brody, a mom from Stockton, New Jersey, has him circle things that he'd like to buy in catalogs. When he's done, she asks him to add up the total cost. Jake's challenge? To figure out which items he must remove from his wish list to get below $100. Give it a try! You can even let your child use a calculator -- even though he's not doing the addition himself, you're still promoting math literacy.
To bolster your child's money skills, create a pretend store that sells some of her favorite things. Give her a budget and some real money to "spend" (you want her to learn the relative value of coins and bills too). Set prices, and if you want to make it even more interesting throw some coupons into the mix. Challenge her to stay within budget while shopping. When she's done, swap places and let her be the cashier.
Kitchen tools provide a great opportunity to teach your child about fractions. Ask your junior chef for help with dinner, but instead of scooping out a cup of rice, show him how three one-third cups equal one cup. Use a measuring cup to explain that three-eighths is less than one half, even if it sounds like more. Showing him how to follow recipes will also help with math literacy -- and feeling comfortable with numbers will help make abstract concepts more concrete.
Explaining how to tell time gives your kid more than just a life skill. It also gets him involved with addition, subtraction, and fractions. Make sure you have at least one clock in the house that isn't digital. Turn practice into a game: Call out times -- asking your child to move the hands to their correct position, then add or subtract minutes and hours. To raise the stakes, swap places and let him call out the times, warning him that you're going to make mistakes on purpose that he has to catch.
Adding by fives and tens to 100 helps your child develop a sense of number relationships and multiplication. Take advantage of downtime, such as car rides. You might want to start things off and ask for "help" when you get stuck. Look for math opportunities wherever you are: At the supermarket, count cans of soup by groups of four and when you're waiting at a restaurant add and subtract sugar packets by threes. And don't forget about patterns either. Look for things like geometric wallpaper, tiles -- even bricks. They're all fodder for discovering interesting repetitions.
If you groan every time you have to tally a check, you might be sending a negative message. So when your grade-schooler complains that he hates math, don't commiserate by saying, "Yeah, me too." Instead, find out why your child feels this way. Perhaps he was embarrassed because he didn't know the answer when his teacher called on him. He could be intimidated by the multiplication tables, or conversely, he may be bored because the class is moving too slowly. To change your child's attitude, remind him of all the important things math is used for. It determines winners in board games and batting averages in baseball. Math measurements ensure that his favorite cookies turn out delicious every time. Also point out some people with cool careers -- astronaut, video-game programmer, scientist, race-car driver -- who use math formulas every day.
While boys once far outscored girls on math tests, that's no longer the case. In fact, girls actually get higher math grades than boys during the early school years. Still, gender stereotypes persist, in part because men outnumber women in the math and science fields. Parents are partly to blame for this disparity. From a young age, boys are more apt to be given toys that promote math skills and spatial thinking (such as building blocks, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs) than girls are.
Once their kids are in school, moms and dads (and often school counselors and teachers) tend to discourage their daughters from taking higher-level math courses while pushing their sons to do so. This leads girls to lose confidence in their math abilities and to shy away from the subject, according to an American Association of University Women study. "We need to encourage girls to enjoy and excel in math," says Megan Franke, PhD, associate professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Game: Mancala (6+ years, $13; cardinalgames.com)What it teaches: Counting, strategy
Game: Dino Math Tracks (6+ years, $22; toys4minds.com)What it teaches: Place value, multi-digit addition and subtraction
Game: Uno (7+ years, $7; mattel.com)What it teaches: Number recognition, less than and greater than, addition
Game: Pass the Pigs (7+ years, $14; fantasytoyland.com)What it teaches: Counting, addition, subtraction
Game: Blokus (6+ years, $30; educationalinsights.com)What it teaches: Geometry, spatial skills, logic