Where do you start with preschool maths?
There's many theories out there on the best place and the best way to start your little child with maths. It can often be overwhelming, especially as a new parent.
However, it doesn't need to be hard or complicated.
The most important part is to be aware of your child's learning phase and by using a gentle and connected parenting style, you can introduce maths in an easy way.
If you're home-schooling, un-schooling or a new parent...
For parents who follow an attachment, gentle or connected parenting style, the path to navigating that transition from ‘parent of a toddler’ to ‘parent of a school-aged kid’ and starting to get into educational content can be a tricky one. So how do you, as a parent, continue the principles you’ve adopted in a gentle parenting style, and continue to nurture your child’s developmental stages through understanding, empathy and respect for their own learning journey?
In this article, we’re going to explore how to start teaching maths to your child, but keeping that alignment to the guiding principles of gentle, connected and attachment parenting styles.
Strangely enough, it starts with how we teach a baby or toddler about dogs.
TIP 1: Start with a multisensory approach
Yes, our fluffy pals are a great starting point.
When we first introduce the concept of a dog, we don’t just sit a baby down with a piece of paper with the letters D-O-G on it. That wouldn’t make sense to a child, right? It’s about as useful as a set of alien hieroglyphics.
Instead what do we do? We start by engaging the senses. We start by showing a picture of a dog, or introducing them to a dog. We get the child to pat a dog, feel its fur (and perhaps get slobbered on!). We say “that’s a dog” and point at it. We put the dog in context “Look, the dog is running” or “that dog is sleeping”. We give our child a concrete understanding of the animal before we ever come close to introducing them to spelling it.
And this is where maths lessons often fall short for kids. Educators and parents alike often wonder why their kids ‘struggle’ with multiplication for example. But is that actually true?
Perhaps what they need is an individualised approach where we try to concretely represent what numbers are before we introduce the abstract representation of symbols on a page.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen time and again that when parents continue the respectful approach to their children’s learning, giving them the time to explore the world of maths, and have a multisensory experience of maths first, that when children convert that to paper and pen, they are much more confident with maths.
And this can happen at all stages of maths. Do you remember asking in school like “Excuse me miss, why do we even have to learn this?”
We need to maintain empathy for our child’s neurological developmental stages and realise that they don’t yet have the capacity to retain and commit abstract facts to their short and long-term memory. Instead of the letters D, O and G, they need to picture a dog running and sleeping. They imagine the fur. Even if it only eventually takes them a fraction of a second to cognitively process this, they have no longer just committed “D-O-G = dog” to memory. They actually understand it. And that makes a huge difference to where the information is stored in the brain.
The same is true of the language of maths.
TIP 2: ‘Foundations First’ will give your child a better level of understanding
Another key to respecting a child’s developmental stage is to keep your terminology and concepts appropriate to their current learning ability.
Most parents would know not to start with calculus or algebra for a 5 year-old, sure. That much is a given. But it helps to think about what exposure to any kind of maths your child has had and then appropriating your starting point based on that. Start with the things they know. 3 cars. 2 teddy bears. 4 carrot sticks.
These types of basic multisensory, experiential learning methods are helpful. And certainly a great starting point. Specific manipulatives and a curriculum designed for ‘foundational first’ is an even better option.
Our main recommended curriculum, Math-U-See, is perfectly suited (and Australianised for retail by Maths Australia, not American) to children at all levels of their maths journey, and uses a specific, colour-coded manipulative set (that is continually used through all the levels of the program). This colour-coding system has been proven to help solidify the sensory and concrete understanding of maths.The program kicks off with a level called Primer, and is helpful for parents guiding preschoolers through the transition into structured learning, giving a great introduction to maths in a playful way.
If you're struggling with finding a structure that is suited to your child and guides them in a well-rounded way through their learning process, choosing a curriculum that ticks those boxes is a must.
And it’s even better if your curriculum focuses on sequential mastery. Which brings me to my next point...
TIP 3: Focus on Sequential Mastery at the Child’s Pace
When you really break down different approaches to learning maths, what becomes apparent is that maths is a sequential subject. We learn one concept and then we build on it. Let’s dive into an example. How difficult would it be to learn multiplication if you didn’t properly know addition or how to count? How would you come to understand that 4 times 4 is equal to 16?
If you didn’t know what a triangle was, how would you measure the angles inside one?
This concept is apparent at all levels of maths understanding too. That's why it's so important to completely allow your student to understand and know - and fully master - each subject before moving on to the next.
The shortfall of sticking to the timing of a school curriculum is that it doesn’t respect the learning pace of the individual child. Ideological statements like “no child left behind” get spouted by the experts, when in reality no child left behind would logically be a mastery approach.I often talk to parents about their child who “just doesn’t have a maths brain” because they aren’t ‘keeping up’ with peers. Almost every time it comes back to needing to go back and focus on mastery and thoroughly learning each concept before moving onto the next.
Please hear me though when I say that the school system or lack of teaching skill by a parent is not necessarily to blame here. Sometimes it can be as simple as the child being away from school on a crucial day where they missed one concept and never caught up. Or a parent not having a specifically sequential curriculum, and so they missed a key concept and didn't know where to start or what to focus on next.
But because of the sequential nature of maths, from that moment forward until today, that child has had a constant disadvantage gap in understanding. And that's why you have kids with low confidence in maths
Side note: When they go through our placement tests and identify the gap in understanding, children often go through the appropriate content in the missing level material and soon enough are back ‘up to speed’. And what do you know… that confidence issue is no longer present.
So bringing us back to approaching maths education from the perspective of a more gentle parenting approach, it makes sense then to try to understand why their peers might ‘get it’ while they don’t. Is there a way you can go through foundational concepts to try and find where the block (or ‘gap in understanding’) is? We need to really meet them where their frustration lies, and then offer to investigate it together.
Rather than giving them the answers, you want to help facilitate your child toward finding the answer for themself as much as possible. They’ll take ownership of correcting that gap and respect you more for it in the long run, rather than feeling like they still don’t ‘get’ maths but had to be shown. See the difference there?
For gently and sequentially approaching maths with a preschooler, start with the basics of number recognition with concrete examples in the real world around them before moving to adding and subtracting. Follow your intuition and and learn to identify the signals indicating when they are getting it and when they really aren't. You’ll know when they’re ready for more.
TIP 4: Review and repeat concepts
I know some people will look at that heading and think ‘Rote learning! No way!’, so let’s break it down. Repetition is actually really helpful for the cognitive processing of information.
When you watch your toddler learn to walk for the first time, for example, they try, they fall, try again, fall. Over and over again. So repetition and practice makes perfect (or ‘mastery’ as we’d say).
But while the repetition of a concept might be helpful, you don’t need to just repeat a concept the same way over and over again.
When that toddler masters walking on the flat they then take on grass, hills, sand and stairs. They master walking anywhere. Then they progress to running. Then, as parents, we try to keep up with a running toddler! But that’s another story.
So translating that same concept to learning maths - repeating in alternative scenarios helps solidify and review understanding and mastery, not just so they can write the answer in a book.
And you, the parent, can empathise with where your child is at, really engage with their understanding of the concept.
At Maths Australia, we use a concept called See it, Feel it, Write it, Say it. This particular method is designed to engage the senses, while at the same time repeating a concept 4 different ways (by looking, feeling, writing and saying) and showing us that the child has actually mastered it.
This is where specific manipulatives sets come in handy for teaching maths too. With a set of manipulative blocks with proper integer demarkations on it, the child can tangibly build their understanding of functions and equations.
TIP 5: Use Consistent Language and Tools
Finally, as a parent who has been intentional about your approach to parenting respectfully and gently, I’m sure it won’t be a foreign idea to you to be really consistent with language.
Maths is a language. So accidentally calling addition “plussing” (or something to that effect) is like switching from English to French. There are some similarities, and there might be some relation between words, but for the most part it will be a foreign language to your child. And it’s surprisingly easy to get caught in this trap with kids, either through substitution or by exposure without explanation.
So, just like being intentional with our gentle parenting approach, we need to be intentional with language. To me, this is where the idea of a curriculum really helps. Programs like Math-U-See are set out in a way that uses consistent language not just between lessons, but between entire levels. They also use the same coloured manipulatives for multiple levels, meaning the visual language remains the same between the plastic blocks the 5-year-olds and what they will be using when they’re 7, and 11, and all throughout their entire experience of maths.
A curriculum also reduces the risk of premature exposure to concepts kids aren’t ready for because it follows a laid-out methodology of introducing concepts only once the child has mastered the preceding concept.
TIP 6: Use Games and Activities
The easiest way to teach is through anecdote, stories, songs, games and activities. It's the way we remember all our childhood stories that our parents read to us at night. According to Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, children can't understand abstract concepts until 12 years old.
That means there's no point getting out big workbooks and trying to teach them numbers by wrote. They need something to link their knowledge to, and using hands-on tools and specific methods that support kinaesthetic learning works wonders.
Using songs, games and activities also builds a strong, nurturing relationship with your child. Those nursery rhymes and childhood songs that you remember from your childhood will be able to help your little ones remember too, and the best thing is, we've got maths songs covered too. You can check out the maths songs available in the Primer Complete Set here.
We've also put together some of our favourite maths games and activities. You can download your copy on this page and start using these right away.
Developing a Plan for your Child
What we’ve explored here doesn’t just apply to maths. You could adapt and apply these same principles to learning other subjects too.
For parents looking for a maths program that can act as a continuation of your connected and gentle parenting approach, I’d love to show you through our program called Math-U-See. We’ve put a page together, just for parents, showing you the advantages and features of the primer level of Math-U-See. This is perfect for parents with preschoolers and little ones, looking to that progressive step into educational content.
See how a complete preschool maths program can work for you:
For parents with kids already at school or home educating, we also have an entire program following this same approach of multisensory learning and maths mastery. Whether you’ve got a kid who claims they ‘just don’t get it’ and want something for intervention, or whether you just want a better approach to systematically teaching maths at home, Maths Australia’s program will be a great fit.
You can check out a full description of our program and how it works here.
By continuing a gentle and connected parenting style with how we introduce educational content to our children, we can be more understanding parents, encourage our children to be more resilient, and help them feel empowered and confident in their learning.
The Team at Maths Australia
This article was originally written for and published on nurtureparentingmagazine.com.au