Making Math a Family Thing

Strategies for parents and teachers on closing the math gap between home and school

January 4, 2018
young boy and mother smiling at each other, with math flashcards

This article is excerpted and slightly edited from a piece originally published by the Global Family Research Project.

Recently overheard in a preschool classroom: 

Child 1: 100 is big.
Child 2: Infinity is really big.
Child 3: Infinity is counting forever.
Child 2: Zero means nothing.
Child 1: People who are 100 hit their heads on the ceiling.

As this conversation suggests, little children have some big ideas about math (as well as some misconceptions). In fact, overall, children are coming into kindergarten today with higher math skills than they were over a decade ago — a finding that holds true across families of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. How families engage in young children’s learning at home and in the community is one important explanation. 

Based on expert advice [PDF], our team has put together some ideas and resources for families to develop children’s mathematical learning and for educators to guide families in that process.  

Suggestions for Parents

Read books that highlight mathematical themes. Herb Ginsburg and colleagues from Teachers College, Columbia University, stress the importance of reading books with mathematical themes together. While reading, parents can ask questions that get children to count, identify shapes, and explain their thinking. Early-childhood educators and librarians are good resources to talk to about books and digital media with mathematical content, and many libraries offer story times and playful activities with math content.  

Let children wrangle with math questions and derive their own solutionsLaura Overdeck, the founder of Bedtime Math, reminds families that it’s sometimes good to let children struggle with math problems. Students of all ages need time to figure out why answers are what they are. Don’t just jump right in and give them the solutions. She also reminds parents to be aware of how you talk about math. It’s important to avoid saying you hate it.

Use “math talk.” Taniesha Woods, co-editor of Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood, stresses that families are perfectly situated to talk about quantity, counting, and shapes anywhere children and families are — at home, in the park, or in the grocery store. For example, when you are eating cookies, count how many you have, talk about their shape, and ask what happens when you break them apart, eat them up, or ask for more.

Suggestions for Educators

Communicate with parents about developmentally appropriate math content and pedagogy. Marlene Kliman, senior scientist at TERC, recommends providing a variety of fun and engaging ways for parents to learn about math content and pedagogy — especially when the teaching of mathematics looks different from the instruction that most adults experienced when they were in school. For example, give children a math-related craft to share with family members or a math game to play with others at home. With smartphones becoming nearly ubiquitous, even in low-income communities, teachers can also text or email parents video snippets of classroom mathematics activities.  

Guide families in using digital and real-world activities with a mathematics focus with their children. The PBS KIDS website offers children and families free digital games, hands-on activities, and video clips with a mathematical focus. Betsy McCarthy from WestEd explains that when early-childhood teachers trained parents on how to use these tools and encouraged families and children to take time to use them together, children’s mathematics knowledge and skills improved, and parents’ awareness and support of their children’s mathematics learning increased. [Read more about WestEd's research into the impact of digital tools on children's mathematical knowledge.]  

Understand how families use mathematics in their everyday lives. Marta Civil and Diane Kinch from TODOS: Mathematics for ALL help teachers understand that mathematics is an activity that exists both in and out of school. They recommend informal get-togethers where groups of families and teachers can discuss the content of math problems and their reasoning behind how they solve them. Teachers can also invite parents into their classrooms and ask family members to share their personal experiences with using math in everyday life. 

Resources for Families and Educators to Support Children’s Mathematical Learning

  • Bedtime Math offers families and children fun math stories and problems they can share together. Afterschool instructors and librarians can also find a curriculum for running math clubs.  
  • DREME TE contains early math resources for prospective and practicing teachers.  
  • Early Math Collaborative provides a website with a variety of videos and lesson ideas to improve math instruction for young children.  
  • Integrating Mathematical Thinking into Family Engagement Programs lays out seven practical tips practitioners can use to integrate early math into their own family engagement programs. 
  • Mixing in Math offers parents, caregivers, afterschool providers, librarians, and teachers resources to mix math into everything they do with children. 
  • PBS KIDS provides hands-on activities, digital games, and videos with a mathematical focus.  
  • Ready Rosie offers videos that show parents and caregivers how to model math in their everyday routines.  
  • Speakaboos introduces a variety of interactive storybooks with mathematical themes. 
  • TODOS: Mathematics for ALL features publications on the teaching of mathematics and resources for parents and families.

About the Author

Margaret Caspe
Margaret Caspe is the director of research and professional learning at the Global Family Research Project. She earned a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in applied developmental psychology from New York University.
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