Storytime, Meet Number Play: Early Math in the Home Matters for Later Skills

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 10, 2020 3 min read

Parents have gotten the message that reading with their children can help instill lifelong literacy skills. A new study adds to the evidence that parents can be providing the same boost to numeracy skills by making sure their preschool children have an enriching math home life, too.

A new study in the journal Child Development tracked nearly 370 Spanish-speaking Chilean children and their families over two years, from the start of preschool through the end of kindergarten. Regardless of families’ socioeconomic background, the study found preschoolers whose parents gave them frequent opportunities to do simple math problems and games at home showed better arithmetic growth and performance by the end of kindergarten than children with less-engaging early math environments at home.

Their parents, mostly mothers, had educations ranging from less than a high school diploma to four-year university graduates, with most at a community college level. The parents relayed how often they played a variety of activities at home:

  • Mapping activities, such as reciting numbers, singing counting songs, orrecognizing printed numbers;
  • Operational activities, such as simple adding or subtracting, telling time using clocks or calendars, and measuring; and
  • Numeracy games, which was based on how many commercially available number-related games the parents recognized or had played with their child.
  • Literacy activities, such as reciting the alphabet, pointing to letters as they read, or making up rhymes and songs with the sounds of letters.

The children were tested in several key math and literacy skills at the start and end of preschool and kindergarten, including verbal and object counting, identifying numbers, problem-solving, math vocabulary, arithmetic fluency, and placing numbers on a number line, among other tasks.

The researchers found, as in prior studies, that parents tended to have higher expectations for their children in reading than in math, and favored literacy over number activities. Better-educated parents recognized more commercial math games than less-educated parents did.

After controlling for the children’s initial math skills and their parents’ education, the researchers found basic “mapping” number activities were not associated with later math growth, but the time preschoolers spent playing more advanced “operational” number games with their parents predicted their growth and math performance by the end of kindergarten. In particular, frequent home activities were linked to better skills in comparing numbers and arithmetic fluency.

Some math and literacy activities also seemed to support each other. For example, frequent operational math activities such as addition and subtraction were linked with better vocabulary knowledge and letter-word identification, and code-based literacy activities such as identifying letter-sounds was associated with symbol-related math skills, such as arithmetic fluency.

The study adds to evidence of the importance of schools engaging parents in children’s math education as early as reading.

It generally takes until preschool age for children to understand that a word like “four” represents a set of items, but prior studies have found infants and toddlers can understand concepts like counting much earlier, and playing math games improved their number sense over time. Similar studies have found that parents who regularly talk to their toddlers about math and numbers have children with significantly higher math knowledge by the start of preschool.

Perhaps equally important, studies have found that rates and severity of math anxiety increase in children as they age, in part because they tend to be exposed to more fear or other negative attitudes about math from parents and society at large over time. But when parents and kids have frequent opportunities to play math-related games and puzzles together, prior research suggests both generations build up better math skills and more positive associations with the subject.

Photo Source: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.