Play: The Number One Way for Kids to Learn Math Skills
Have you ever watched a young child play with water or sand—say, at the beach or in the backyard or in the bathtub? Chances are, much of the activity focused on filling up and pouring from one container to another. Is this just another way for toddlers and preschoolers to have fun, passing the time away—or is something else going on here?
It is fun for kids to play with substances they can measure and pour, and it’s also fun for them to stack blocks into towers and to build other block structures. You’ll see babies occupy themselves quite happily for a surprising amount of time when they play with shape sorters and stacking toys. But beyond the fun, it’s the way kids experiment with size, shape, amounts, and other arithmetic concepts.
What can parents do to help their toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-age kids learn math concepts? Here are some ideas:
- Let kids practice pouring and measuring. Keep safe containers of various sizes around and give children well-supervised time in the bathtub for playing with water. Play guessing games by asking your child to estimate how many small containers-ful will be needed to fill up a big container. Extend this kind of play to different settings (outdoors, at the beach, in the kitchen, while doing laundry) and with different safe and age appropriate materials (e.g. sand, pebbles, potting soil, coins, beads). Kids may also enjoy pouring and measuring some foods like frozen peas or corn and with close supervision, they can use these skills to help prepare meals.
- Combine reading time with math time. There are many wonderful children’s books that feature counting or math concepts as part of the story—creating an effective way to combine lap reading with arithmetic-centered play. You can find plenty of titles by Googling “counting books” and similar phrases. Other good titles can be found in consultation with the children’s librarian at your public library or at your local specialty toy store. One word of warning—some books in this genre use not-so-healthy food products such as Oreos or M & M’s as the item being counted and some parents may wish to avoid those snack-centered “stories”.
- Play counting games—anytime, anywhere. Many of us grew up with rhymes and song-games that helped us learn how to count. Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and One Two, Buckle My Shoe come to mind. Some of these classic ditties have been made into board games of varying quality, but parents should keep in mind that all they really need is a playful spirit and a simple everyday occasion like a car ride or waiting in line at the grocery store to engage your child in those types of counting play. Of course, age appropriate board games are also great ways for kids to learn counting skills and some online games are effective and fun.