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Encouraging Your Child to Like Math: Why and How

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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In today's quantitative world, it's important that kids grow up with a positive attitude concerning math. When we raise our children to believe that they "hate math" or are "bad at math", we do them a grave disservice in terms of both life skills and the job market.

"Taking math courses matters. Research studies have established that the more math classes students take, the higher their earnings ten years later, with advanced math courses predicting an increase in salary as high as 19.5% ten years after high school (Rose & Betts, 2004). Research has also found that students who take advanced math classes learn ways of working and thinking--especially learning to reason and be logical--that make them more productive in their jobs." (Jo Boaler in "Mathematical Mindsets", Introduction)

This is especially true for those of us who are raising girls. I have a kindergarten-age daughter, and this is something I work on every day. To have the full spectrum of options available to her in the future, she needs to not be afraid of math now.  

Here are some tips for making math a positive experience for young children:

1. Stop saying that you yourself are bad at math, or hate math. Don't grumble when you have to balance the checkbook. Kids absorb these messages, even if you aren't directly talking with them. (See "Mathematical Mindsets" for more on the impact of both parents and teachers giving out negative math messages.) 

2. Find ways in your day-to-day life to use math, and to point out occasions when math and numbers are useful. For small children, this could mean pointing out speed limit signs when you are driving, or counting out the Cheerios that you put on their plates. As kids get older, you can incorporate ever more complex examples. Does your child want to know when dinner will be ready? Instead of saying "in an hour" try this: "It's going to take me about 10 minutes to finish preparing, and then it will have to cook for 40 minutes, and then cool for 10 minutes. How long do you think it will be?" Which brings me to my next piece of advice...

3. Whenever you can, turn your child's questions into word problems. When your child asks a question involving time, dates, or anything else with numbers, this is an opportunity. Whatever the child is asking about is something that (at least for the moment) she cares about. You can have her practice doing a bit of math in her head, and see why she would want to understand math. I do this constantly with my daughter. If she says: "How many minutes until my Girl Scout Daisy Meeting?" I tell her, "It starts in two and a half hours. An hour is 60 minutes, which means that a half hour is 30 minutes. So how many minutes is two and a half hours?" Of course I help her - I don't want these little word problems to become onerous.

4. Surround your child with toys that build her spatial skills. Your child can never have enough blocks. In my house, we have a mix of plain wooden blocks, castle-themed wooden blocks, and Magna-Tiles. I also recommend Legos, once your child is old enough for them. It's better to get the big tub of classic Lego pieces rather than having a lot of specific sets with step-by-step instructions. Tinker toys and Lincoln Logs are still available, too. Also good for building math skills are toys that can be sorted and categorized. We have a set of 100 little plastic teddy bears in six colors which my daughter has played with for years now. 

5. Include books that have positive depictions of math in your child's library. When your child is small, buy or borrow plenty of different counting books. Try to steer towards books that are FUN, rather than anything that seems dry. And if your child rejects a book, do NOT press him. Find a different book. Turning the reading of counting books into a chore runs the risk of turning your child off from reading AND math. 

Some math-themed picture books and early readers that we like are:

Lemonade in Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money by Emily Jenkins and G. Brian Karas

Gumballs: A Mr. and Mrs. Green Adventure by Keith Baker

How Many Jellybeans? by Andrea Menotti and Yancey Labat

The Chicken Problem by Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson

See also The 14 Fibs of Gregory K by Greg Pincus for middle grade readers

6. Most importantly, push back when other people erode your child's enjoyment of math, and guard against this in yourself. Many schools are unfortunately full of dry math worksheets and repetitive homework problems. Your job, as your child's advocate, is to push back on this if you can. Talk to your child's teachers. Refuse to work on the "optional" homework problems or apps. If your child uses a tablet, replace dry, quiz-based apps with apps that your child enjoys. Do not get sucked into those informal parental competitions about how high your child can count, or how many worksheets he did yesterday.

Your goal is for your child to ENJOY math. The rest will follow. Do anything you can to make math more, not less, enjoyable. A positive attitude about math will keep doors open for your child that might well close otherwise. This is worth some effort. 

Originally published at Jen Robinson's Book Page: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2016/01/encouraging-your-child-to-like-math-why-and-how.html

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Jen Robinson | @JensBookPage has been blogging about children's literature and growing bookworms since 2005. After her daughter started elementary school, she expanded her blog's focus to encompass the growing of joyful learners of all types: bookworms, mathematicians, scientists, artists, and more.

Jen believes that most schools today feature too much homework, too much testing, and not enough time for play and self-directed learning. She worries about the pressures on kids that are sapping their joy of learning. She thinks that we can do better. She feels that this matter is urgent. 

Jen has a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, and co-owns a small software firm serving the semiconductor industry. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in San Jose, California, with her husband and daughter.  

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