We use math every day, often without even realizing it. Our world is comprised of shapes, colors, patterns, and symbols that are organized to help us create order and make sense of everything we do. As a child, I grew up thinking I was “bad” at math without realizing that mathematical concepts went beyond multiplication tables and division problems. When I taught kindergarten and first grade, I made it my mission to teach math in a hands-on way to instill a love of mathematics from an early age. As a parent, I am striving to do the same. Incorporating math into your day-to-day activities might seem daunting, but I can assure you that it is not only possible—it can be fun! Here are some ideas to get you started.
Developing pattern awareness at a young age can help children build a strong foundation for later mathematical understanding. Identifying, creating, and extending a pattern supports your child’s ability to make predictions. Understanding operations can be thought of as early algebraic thinking. You can support your child’s learning about patterns through fun activities right at home.
- Take a walk. Look for patterns in nature like rings on a stump, stripes on a zebra, shells, clouds, and so on. Point out interesting patterns and identify what makes them a pattern. Are there repeating elements, symmetry, or another kind of regularity between elements?
- Create patterns. You can do a simple activity like Cereal Patterns that uses common materials in your kitchen. You can extend this activity by asking your child to name the kind of pattern they created (AB, ABB, ABC) and by using other kinds of food or vegetables to create or modify a pattern.
- Use blocks or other building materials to create a growing pattern or a staircase pattern with equal steps. These types of patterns can be a great way to challenge your child to predict and make a plan for what will happen when they continue to add materials.
Knowing how money works is an important life skill that we can all agree our children must have. Understanding money also supports counting, adding, subtracting, and numerous other mathematical reasoning skills. There are many fun and engaging ways to support children’s understanding of money at home.
- Ask your child to help you shop. Depending on your child’s age, this will look different. For younger kids, point out how you give cash to pay for an item and receive change back. Model counting out money, if possible. This often works well for smaller items such as coffee, milk, or a cookie. Invite older kids to take on part of your shopping by having them calculate how much things cost and adding up the total. You can extend this learning by putting an older child in charge of one meal a week and helping them figure out the budget needed for their ingredients.
- Use an allowance to teach financial literacy and the value of money. There are many ideas about how and when to give an allowance. Ultimately, if and how you choose to use one is a personal decision for you and your family. I learned about the three jar approach a few years ago. In short, the idea is that all the money a kid gets is divided into three jars: save, spend, and give. This helps teach the value of money. I started to use it with my 3.5-year-old, and it has already opened up many conversations and ideas about money in my house!
- Play games to practice using money. Monopoly or The Game of Life were the games of choice when I was a kid. Now there are a ton of interesting options to practice using money in a playful setting—including making up your very own currency!
Children begin to identify and learn about 2D shapes between the ages of 2 and 4 through everyday exposure in books and songs as well as real-world examples such as the shapes of windows, doors, or blocks. Learning about shapes helps children better understand the world around them through visual organization. Our world is comprised of shapes, and when children are taught the names and attributes of shapes, they are able to use that knowledge to make sense of everything from trees and buildings to letters and numbers. During the early years in school, your child will begin to understand basic 2D and 3D shapes by name and attribute (for example, a square has four equal sides). Helping your child develop a deep understanding of shapes will support their learning in other areas such as recognizing similarities and differences, identifying symbols, and making observations.
- Go on a shape hunt in your house, neighborhood, or city. Shapes are everywhere if you look closely enough. A shape hunt is a great family activity to do after school or during the weekend. For younger kids, bring along a list and have them check off shapes as they spot them. For older kids, encourage them to track the shapes they find using words or visuals.
- Create shape art using pre-cut shapes or inviting your child to draw and cut out their own shapes. Not only is this a great art project, but it is also a wonderful way for your child to learn how shapes can work together to create other shapes.
- Make shapes using materials you have around the house. You can create shapes out of toothpicks, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, or string! Making shapes is a great open-ended activity for all ages. For younger kids, display a shape and ask them to copy it using one of the provided materials. For older kids, ask them to create a shape and explain how they know what shape it is by describing its attributes.
Being able to use and understand measurement tools is an important life skill that we can support at home. We use tools such as rulers, measuring tape, thermometers, and scales on a daily basis to help us understand the world and our place within it. Measurements help us know how much flour to add to our bread, the amount of rain to expect in the morning, and how heavy something might be before we pick it up. Kids love measuring things and there are many ways to practice these skills in your day-to-day life.
- Invite your child to cook something with you in the kitchen. Model reading or let them read a basic recipe and encourage them to take the lead when measuring out the ingredients. Even my 18-month-old loves to “help” me mix ingredients for pancakes in the morning. Cooking is a great way to introduce the concept of measurement in a tangible and delicious way.
- Grow a plant indoors or outdoors (depending on the season) and practice noting how much it grows each day. While this is a project with some delayed gratification, it is an excellent way to show how something changes in height in small increments.
- Measure stuffed animals or objects around the house using a measuring tape, blocks, or other measurement tools. This fun activity encourages your child to collect and (if they are a little older) record data. This activity can also be a good way to introduce the concept of comparison by asking your child questions such as, “Which one was the longest? Which was the shortest? How do you know?”
Being able to collect, sort, and classify objects into groups is a foundational math skill taught in the primary grades that continues to be used in more advanced mathematical studies. Classifying and sorting begins without the use of numbers and looks like sorting objects into groups by a distinctive attribute, such as by shape or color. As children become more adept at sorting, they will begin to analyze the groups by identifying similarities and differences within a given category. Classifying and sorting can be done with anything and can provide hours of enjoyment—all the while honing important math skills!
- Go outside and find objects to sort into categories. Use a piece of chalk to write or draw the categories on the sidewalk. Then invite your child to write or draw each item into its matching category. Alternatively, you could collect natural items in a park, on a hike, or in your backyard and then sort the physical items.
- Sort crayons, markers, or colored pencils. Get out that big box full of used crayons and ask your child to sort them into groups by color or length. Once they are confident in this task, mix in other kinds of writing tools and encourage them to identify additional categories (fine or wide tips, with or without erasers, and so on) when sorting into groups.
- Put away toys, books, or games. Did you know that cleaning the room could be a great way to practice math skills? Work with your child to identify categories of toys, books, or games, and then have them sort their things by category. You can go a step further and work on some serious household organization in the process! When my family moved last year, we made it a point to create functional toy bins based on category (vehicles, blocks, animals, and so on), and this has helped with cleaning up on a daily basis!
I hope some of these activities spark a love of mathematics in you and your child and inspire you to be creative in the ways that you view math and how useful it can be in all areas of our lives!
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.