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Math and the myth of 1, 2, 3

"My preschooler can count twice as high as your preschooler" - but does that mean she really understands more about math? In truth, she has merely memorized a sequence of words. Although children can't learn math unless they know how to count, counting is only one aspect of math.

Learning through experience

Children begin to count on their own as they grow, and they learn from everyday experiences with length, quantity, time, temperature, money, and more. Through hands-on activities, children expand their true understanding of math. Adults should recognize that games such as sorting and putting objects in sequence are actually early experiments in math, even if they don't look much like geometry!

What you can do today

Here are some everyday opportunities for children to begin thinking about numbers:

  • All about me - Children get a sense of pride in knowing their own address and phone number. Early on, children can identify their own age. They want to know their height - both in inches and feet. Putting a child on a scale represents an opportunity to compare pounds and ounces, and heavy versus light. Children may learn what size clothes they wear, and be able to judge what will fit and what won't (that's an early exercise in "spatial relation").

  • Cooking - Adults pour, measure, divide, estimate time, and read labels every time they prepare a meal. Why not include even very young children in on the action? Before he can pour pancake batter or read recipes, a child can stir with a wooden spoon in a plastic bowl. Show a child how you follow a recipe step by step, and how you set the oven temperature. Remember to warn children about what's too hot to touch or eat!

  • Managing money - Children can touch, count, save, sort, and spend money (with supervision, of course). What better way to teach children about the value of money than by taking them shopping and showing them how much they must pay for items - and how much they will save with discounts and coupons! As children get older, they begin to learn about working for money when they do household chores for an allowance.

  • Around the house - Household repairs offer children excellent opportunities to practice math skills. Let children watch as you measure a door frame, or hang a picture in the center of a wall. Children can help you make a list of items you will need to complete a project, including the number of tools. Everyday activities like setting the timer on the VCR or setting the dinner table are opportunities for children to count and work with numbers.

  • Play - Children keep score during store-bought games such as Sorry and dominoes. Children may also race against the clock or measure the distance they can hit or throw a ball. Help children make neighborhood activities and sports more than just good exercise.

    When children pretend, they often create lifelike situations in which they may check a bus schedule, or gauge how much fuel is needed for a long car trip. Pretend play sometimes takes off from reading literature, much of which contains information about numbers and counting. Also, don't forget about math concepts involved in puzzles and blocks, both of which involve the whole child in learning.

  • Travelling - Even a short car trip offers children experiences with math. Ask children to identify the speed limit on a passing sign. Estimate the number of minutes it takes to get to a relative's house. Also try to remember games you played in the back seat of the car, like counting yellow school buses and adding up the numbers on license plates.
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