Make Learning Math Fun

Even if you're not a numbers person yourself, you can help your child develop stronger math skills -- and a positive attitude. Learn why it's so important to boost your child's education, even before she starts preschool.

Girl with apples Masterfile

What do an engineer, a graphic designer, a biologist, and a business administrator have in common? They all work in professions that require a solid educational grounding in mathematics. In fact, each of the top 20 jobs on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' current list of highest-paying occupations value numerical literacy, and by the time our children are ready to enter the workforce, professions that are related to STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math) are predicted to be even more predominant.

Unfortunately, though, too many children still struggle mightily with mathematics. In international student-assessment rankings of math skills, American kids trail not only their peers from Japan and Taiwan but also those from Estonia, Iceland, and Vietnam. A study from the University of California, Irvine, found that children who struggle with math in elementary school are 29 percent less likely to attend college than those who are proficient in it. And, sadly, the majority of our students are floundering: A report by the ACT testing service shows that only 44 percent of high-school grads are actually prepared to take college-level math.

Certainly, American schools bear a large share of the blame. Districts have tried numerous approaches over the years to improve math skills -- from abstract theories, to intensive drills, to the current reform-math trend, which emphasizes conceptual understanding and multiple ways of solving a single problem. For instance, kids may learn to subtract from left to right as well as right to left. When dividing 87 by 3, they are taught to guesstimate using multiplication factors of 10 (i.e., 3 x 10 = 30; another 3 x 10 = 30; add them up and you get 60; subtract that from 87, which leaves 27) rather than simply seeing how many times 3 goes into 8 (2) and carrying the 2. None of these strategies, though, have reversed our kids' low worldwide ranking in the subject.

A common criticism of popular grade-school curricula today is that they skip around from topic to topic, making it more difficult for kids to fully comprehend ideas. The top-selling elementary-level math textbooks emphasize definitions and formulas, whereas those used in high-achieving countries focus on the importance of building a deeper understanding of math principles.

In recent years, a growing number of schools around the country have adopted Singapore math, which is based on the curriculum for grades 1 through 6 that has helped the island nation place at or near the top in worldwide mathematics rankings in recent surveys. "This performance in math didn't happen by accident," says Char Forsten, coauthor of Math Strategies You Can Count On and a consultant for Staff Development for Educators, which helps train teachers in Singapore math. In the 1970s, Singapore students were actually low-performing in the subject. The reversal was the result of a revamped approach that devotes more time to fewer topics, with a concrete sequence of instruction and the use of model drawing, which help students to fully grasp the math they are learning.

A study by the nonprofit American Institutes for Research concluded that Singapore's math approach is superior to others used in U.S. schools. Still, districts that have switched to it without careful planning have faced myriad challenges and frustrations. Those that have experienced greater success have invested in teacher training and displayed patience, as the radically different method takes roughly six to eight years to really pay off (as it did in Singapore).

Meanwhile, policy makers are attempting to address our collective math problem. Common Core, a series of nationwide assessments that are aligned with higher standards and designed to help our kids compete on the global stage, is one possible solution. However, it doesn't address the need for more teacher training. That's why President Obama requested $3.1 billion in the 2014 budget to improve our nation's STEM education. "To thrive in a global economy we need to attract people with strong math and science backgrounds into teaching, train them to teach well, and hold on to them," says Parents advisor Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning.

Whether or not these government initiatives will prove successful remains to be seen, particularly in light of the math phobia that seems so pervasive here. Whereas the Chinese view doing calculations as a skill that anyone can master, we tend to accept that it's a talent that you either have ... or you don't. In fact, even the college-educated among us seem to be perfectly comfortable saying, "I can't do math." Can you imagine those same folks saying, "I can't do reading"?

Worse, we may be projecting our own math discomfort onto our kids. In a PBS survey, one third of moms admitted that they were anxious about teaching number skills to their children. "While we definitely need to improve the overall quality of math education in this country, an important first step is getting children comfortable with number concepts from a young age," says Nancy Jordan, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

    Tips for Teaching Math to Pre-K Kids

      Strategies for Math Success

      Boy with blocks Corbis

      Be Playful
      Solving problems requires mastering a core of skills, including grouping, classifying, and counting; recognizing numerals, shapes, and patterns; and even some basic geometry. Fortunately, your child is hardwired to begin to understand these concepts by age 2, according to Roberta Schomburg, Ph.D., associate dean in the School of Education at Carlow University, in Pittsburgh.

      You can tap into that natural aptitude by giving your toddler cardboard boxes of different sizes and letting her see which objects (such as a rubber ball, stuffed animals, and squishy toys) fit into each. Boost her spatial sense by having her build with blocks and play with a shape sorter. Or find another way to teach geometry. Rachel Teichman, from Oakland, California, uses waffles. "I show 3-year-old Nina that a round waffle isn't just a circle," she says. "You can find squares and rectangles, cut it into triangles, and create new shapes as you take bites from it."

      When your kid is a little older, try showing her two groups of black dots. Then let her estimate which has more. This exercise engages a child's number sense, according to a recent study published in the journal Cognition.

      Turn Your Kitchen Into a Math Classroom
      Have your child count the eggs as you crack them into a bowl, or ask him to help you pour (and measure) 2 cups of milk, suggests Donna Adelmund, an early-education teacher at the University of Northern Iowa Child Development Center, in Cedar Falls. Point out the numbers in a recipe, and show him how to set the kitchen timer. You can even try teaching him about simple fractions. "I let my kids, ages 2 and 4, choose whether they want to have their sandwiches cut into halves or quarters," says Caroline Mukisa, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Then we count the total number of pieces."

      Embrace the Arts
      The rhythm of dancing makes it a great activity to promote counting. Have your child show off different steps as she recites the numbers. "Or create patterns like 'March four times, and then hop four times,' " suggests Dr. Stipek. Drawing and painting help instill math skills too. Encourage your child to create a variety of shapes on a page or on a canvas, and then show her how they can serve as the basis for a detailed image: A circle can become a face, while a rectangle can be turned into a house or a window. Point out the defining features of different shapes -- triangles have three lines, while rectangles have four.

      Make the Concepts Real
      Holding up a flash card and saying, "This is a two" won't get your kid excited about numbers. Instead, show him a bowl of chocolate candies, and ask him to count out two for dessert. You can turn your child's anticipation of a special event into a math tutorial. When Cheryl Wu's 4-year-old son, Koi, asked what day they were going to the science museum, the New York City mom told him Saturday. Then she had him count the days until the trip on his fingers. Let an older kid work on addition and subtraction by playing with money. Dump some change on a table, review the value of each coin, and challenge him to see how many ways he can add up to a dollar.

      Become a Numbers Booster
      If you make statements such as, "Hey, I was never good at math, and I still turned out okay," you're setting your child up for failure. Instead, look for ways to make your comments sound positive and encouraging ("See, you even use numbers when you're playing hopscotch"), says Dr. Stipek.

      Focus on Games
      Find ways to practice addition and subtraction that don't involve drilling. Board games such as Chutes and Ladders are an excellent way to cement arithmetic skills, says Dr. Jordan. Or use a deck of cards to make up your own math games. Try playing War with each of you using two cards at a time, and adding them up to see who has the bigger total. Not only will this improve your child's calculation skills, but it also helps convey the idea that math is fun.

      Act Like a Student as Well as a Teacher
      Try to develop a new appreciation for math as your child studies it in grade school. "If you learn it over again with her, you may start liking it more," says Jo Boaler, Ph.D., author of What's Math Got to Do With It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject. Addition and multiplication are now taught using different methods than the ones we were taught. Looking through your child's textbook or attending school math workshops for parents will equip you to offer help if she needs it. Even better: When she masters a new step, ask her to teach you. She'll love the role reversal.

        Skill Builders

        Check out these multimedia resources for helping young kids become more comfortable with math.

        Games

        • Dominoes The perfect hands-on tool for preschoolers to learn about matching and basic counting. 3 years and up
        • Set A challenging card game (even adults like it) that helps children hone their memory and observation skills and recognize patterns. 6 years and up, $18; amazon.com

        Websites

        • Early Math You'll find games and resources to help kids 2 and up develop math skills. pbs.org/parents/earlymath
        • Math Cats Kids will love the number-related art projects, crafts, and calculators (one can tell you how old you are in days, hours, minutes, or seconds). mathcats.com

        Books

        • Shapes, Shapes, Shapes, by Tana Hoban. In a series of beautiful photographs, the author points out the interesting shapes all around us. 3 years and up
        • Inch by Inch, by Leo Lionni. The charming inchworm illustrations in this Caldecott Honor book will help familiarize kids with measurement. 3 years and up

        Apps

        • Cute Math Simple graphics and silly sounds keep preschoolers entertained as they work on addition and subtraction basics. $2; iPad, iPhone, iPod touch
        • Math Bingo A fun way for kids 4 and up to practice math facts at their level. $2 for iPad and iPhone; $1 for Android

        Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.