It’s no secret that success in math is a good predictor of success at life. In education and policy news these days, it seems like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields — dominates the discussion. Yep, as a society, we’ve all grasped on to the fact that math skills are vitally important to the types of stable, high-earning careers as can be found in the modern economy.
We know that math education has to start early - in fact, we talk about this extensively in our blog post Early Math Success Best Indicator of Future Academic & Career Success. Math education needs to start even before we send our kids to Kindergarten. But, for many of us, math is unpleasant. Math was a subject in school that we came to dread, like having to do pull-ups in gym class. So, is this math-hate inevitable? Are our preschoolers destined to detest math as much as we did?
The answer is, categorically, no.
There’s absolutely no reason why kids should dislike math. They’re not born disliking math; it’s something they pick up. How can we make math fun for early learners?
Here are a few ways to ensure that their first forays into math are fun-filled.
1. Encourage Curiosity
Kids are born curious. Think about it. When kids are born, they don’t know anything. They’re blank slates, and their brains are giant sponges. They’re hard-wired to learn by observation, by figuring things out and by exploring the world around them.
Since children’s curiosity is innate, the best thing parents and caregivers can do is to nurture their natural curiosity. This can be accomplished by modeling curious behavior — wondering out loud about things, asking questions about your surroundings, that type of thing. Kids pick up on this kind of thing, and if they see curiosity as a positive trait, they’ll be so much more open about their own curiosity. And, curiosity is the key to making learning fun for its own sake.
2. Make Math Real
Numbers are pretty much the first and most important concept to teach to kids, since they are to mathematics what the alphabet is to literacy — they’re the building blocks of the discipline. Now, numbers on their own are actually kind of abstract; that is to say, they exist more so as characters on a page than as what they’re supposed to represent. But numbers can easily be made concrete if kids are shown that the number 2 represents two objects (let’s say two apples). Being able to touch the numbers, to interact with them and to see that numbers refer to a physical reality is very important to aiding long-term comprehension.
3. Fun & Games
Touchscreen technology is going nowhere. In fact, if anything, it’s going to expand even more rapidly. The technology does have tremendous potential as an educational tool, since kids love the interactivity of the touchscreen. There’s a huge marketplace full of so-called educational apps, for kids of all ages.
Here’s the deal with educational apps: Some of them are good at educating, but aren’t any fun (they’re glorified worksheets. Kids hate ‘em.) Some educational apps are fun, but aren’t any good at teaching (there are a lot of these, but we won’t name names). And then there are the games that are both fun and educational. And there are fewer of them than you might think (we have done a LOT of research into them).
4. Practical Math
There are tons of ways to show kids how you use math in the real world. Showing kids examples of this is a great way to illustrate just what is so important about math. Our recommendation is having your kids help you set the table. It’s a great way to illustrate the need for specific numbers of items. (And kids love helping out!)
5. Keep Kids Challenged and Engaged
One of the coolest things about raising children is witnessing them learning and eventually mastering new things. While preschoolers might struggle with numbers at the beginning, soon enough they’ll be rattling them off by the hundreds. When things become too easy for kids, they get bored, and they cease to be engaged (i.e., they stop learning). If things are too difficult, however, they will just become frustrated and close themselves off to learning.
It’s on this middle ground, the “sweet spot”, where they’re being challenged with material that is just beyond their current skill level, but isn’t so difficult that mastering it is unattainable, that children do their best learning. So, if kids master counting numbers in order, get them to recite them backwards. Or every second number. Mix things up so that they have to draw on the skills they already have to accomplish something new. That’s key.
These are just a few of the ways that math can be made fun for children who are just getting started. If done right, they’ll have positive associations with their earliest exposure to math that will set them up for a lifetime of success. There are a few things that need to be avoided in order to ensure this, however.
• Drill-and-kill: Nothing saps the enjoyment out of math like being drilled to death by worksheet after dreary worksheet. Kids are desperate for material that doesn’t feel like work, but that engages their natural curiosity.
• Wrong-Answer Shaming: Learning math is all about making mistakes. If kids were born knowing all the answers, what would be the point of learning in the first place? Nothing is more harmful to a child’s development as a budding mathematician than being scolded for getting an answer wrong. Kids will just associate math with punishment, and this is how math anxiety develops.
• Projecting One’s Own Math Dislike: We already mentioned that lots of us hate math. We might be hopeless cases, but our kids aren’t. So, even if we thoroughly detest math, keeping a positive attitude about it at all times when talking to kids about math, or when teaching them math is absolutely essential. Kids pick up cues from their parents and caregivers, and so they can pick up negative attitudes towards math pretty easily.
Have you come up with other ways of making math fun for early math learners? What’s your favorite method? Let us know in the comments below!
Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.