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Could Playing With Siblings Make Kids Better at Math?

A new study finds that when children teach each other math concepts while playing, it helps them better understand their math lessons at school.

siblings playing with blocks Shutterstock
When my kids were little, we had an easel set up in their playroom that they used to play "school" and quiz each other on math facts. Turns out, they may actually have been paving the path for a future of high math SAT scores. Because, according to a new study published in Infant and Child Development, a young child's interest in teaching math to a sibling gives both kids the chance to explore and construct a deeper understanding of their social and physical worlds.

Or, in other words, helping one of your brothers of sisters solve word problems and equations at home doesn't just help them better understand the subject—it actually helps you, too!

"By the time children enter school, they have already become familiar with certain mathematical concepts because they spend so much time playing together at home with toys and materials like construction games, blocks, and memory cards," says study co-author Nina Howe, a professor in the department of education at Concordia University in Montreal. "We theorized that the sibling relationship provides an important context for the development of mathematical understanding."

Pretty cool! Could this be the reason my formerly math-phobic daughter was just recommended for honors geometry in high school next year?

The team studied 39 sets of siblings, each two years apart in age, at two points in time—when they were 2 and 4 years old, and again when they were 4 and 6. Their findings show that across their childhood, older siblings taught 80 percent of the time, and the younger ones taught the remaining 20 percent, with those teaching moments marked by phrases like "I'll show you how" and "Why does 4 come after 3?"

They also found that the kids were more likely to teach numbers, geometry, and measurement while younger, and concepts related to grouping, relations, and operations when they were older.

"This study proves that children learn about math during experiences and within contexts meaningful to them—not just at school," explained Howe. "In early childhood, informal play in the home is just as important as formal teaching in the classroom."

Which means even though school may soon be out for the summer, you should probably keep all those math textbooks close at hand.

Don't worry—I've got an easel you can borrow.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.