When is the best time to start teaching kids math?

ECE, early child education

My child is not yet toilet-trained but apparently it’s time to shop around for preschools. I’m not really sure what to look for, perhaps a school that can toilet-train and sleep-train my daughter for me and undo the many mistakes that I have undoubtedly already made. But after doing a bit of reading I may need to find a preschool that is dedicated to teaching mathematics.

A recent article in The Seattle Times talks about preschools that teach their under-five students basic math. “Overall, 95 percent of the kindergartners at South Shore PreK-8 – a combination preschool and elementary school – arrive with the basic skills they’ll need for elementary-school math, the highest rate in the district and far above the state average, which stands at about 53 percent.”

So what kind of math can preschoolers learn? Past thinking believed that the answer was very little. This was largely due to Jean Piaget; a Swiss developmental psychologist who concluded (through research) that children younger than seven didn’t understand what numbers represented.

However, recent studies contradict his findings. One seminal piece of research is by Northwestern University professor Greg Duncan. Duncan and his team discovered that children who enter kindergarten with elementary mathematics and reading skills are the most likely to experience later academic success.

“We find the single most important factor in predicting later academic achievement is that children begin school with a mastery of early math and literacy concepts,” Duncan said.

Math is a particularly important catalyst for later achievement. “The paramount importance of early math skills – of beginning school with a knowledge of numbers, number order and other rudimentary math concepts – is one of the puzzles coming out of the study…Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, but it also predicts future reading achievement. And, it does so just as reliably as early literacy mastery of vocabulary, letters and phonetics predicts later reading success,” Duncan said.

So now that we’ve established that math early on is important, let’s see what they are doing at the preschools. In South Seattle, the school teacher quoted in The Seattle Times article introduced her students to the principles of arithmetic. Her class was asked to string seven beads across two rows of pipe cleaners. Some separated their seven into three and four, others into two and five. The exercise teaches children the fundamentals of addition, well before they can make sense of an actual equation.

Another game played at a preschool in Boston is called feely box.  A teacher places a foam shape into a box that has two holes in the side. The kids put their hands through those holes and describe the object inside to the class based on the way it feels. “It has four L (right) angles and four sides,” one student said. The idea behind this activity is to introduce children to basic geometry. “I expect them to pick up scientific words like ‘waterproof,’ so why not teach them the word rhombus … right from the start?” the preschool teacher remarked.

All this knowledge can be expanded at home by incorporating math in a range of household activities such as:

  1. Counting the food available at mealtime, e.g., “You left four pieces of broccoli on the plate (which was coincidentally all of the broccoli I put on your plate).”
  2. Counting down events on a calendar, e.g., “Your birthday is in five days. Your mother has managed to keep you alive for four years.”
  3. To helping kids identify shapes “This burnt cookie is a star and its inexplicably doughy looking neighbour is a circle.”

There are of course other ways of introducing children to math and making it fun. And by the sound of things it’s never too early to start, which means that I’m already running behind schedule.

If there are teachers or parents reading this, I would love some advice on introducing preschoolers to math. I would also appreciate your thoughts on when you think is the optimal time to start teaching mathematics to kids.

Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.