how math helps your child's brain develop
By Dr. Maureen Ruby
What family member hasn’t taken delight
as they sit with a child who chants, "one, two, three
…" when asked to count or in answer to the
question, "how many?" This playful interaction
is easily recognized as an important milestone. It is
a step in the development of "mathematical power."
As described by National Council of Teachers
of Mathematics, mathematical power "includes the
ability to explore, conjecture, and reason logically;
to solve routine problems; to communicate about and through
mathematics; and to construct ideas within mathematics
and between other intellectual activity." Mathematical
power also involves "the development of personal
self confidence and a disposition to seek, evaluate, and
use quantitative and spatial information in solving problems
and in making decisions." "Students’ flexibility,
perseverance, interest, curiosity, and intuitiveness also
effect the realization of mathematical power." Mathematics
is second only to reading in the amount of time spent
and money budgeted in elementary school curricula.
Mathematics is a language with its own set
of symbols and rules for communicating. These symbols
are abstract and represent the very nature of mathematics
as a way of thinking. Mathematics is a powerful tool that
has usefulness in virtually every aspect of daily routines.
Mathematics is a system of relationships that supports
the appreciation of patterns that recur in our world,
in how things work, in art and in nature.
Mathematics should continue to have a central
role in the early childhood and elementary school curriculum.
For a subject that is clearly so vital, "mathphobia"
– an anxiety or fear of mathematics - is a condition
no child should have to experience. The anxiety associated
with mathematics is often associated with how math is
taught and teacher/parent attitudes. Knowing how children
learn and understanding how the brain searches for, processes,
and then organizes information is critical to providing
appropriate learning experiences.
Only when a concept is meaningful to a child
can the symbolic language of mathematics begin to be introduced
and have meaning. Active involvement in experiential learning
is the cornerstone of meaning construction. Such learning
is developmental and requires time. Children need time
to think and extract mathematical concepts from the authentic
experiences that teachers provide. Children need time
to play and explore materials, independently, through
free exploration before they can attend to reflection
and mathematical concepts.
Have you ever observed young children playing
with "Fruit Loops" or other dry, colored cereal?
When they sort the cereal pieces into colors, arrange
them into repeating patterns (yellow, green, orange …yellow,
green, orange...) or otherwise explore, they are using
the cereal pieces as manipulatives to assist in their
independent learning. As children engage in activities
like this, supported by interaction with other children
and adults, they begin to think about what they are observing
and make connections from one activity to another and
then generalize to the world about them. This is the beginning
of "metacognition" or thinking about thinking.
The attitude of the teachers towards these and later mathematical
activities is key to the success, attitudes and enthusiasm
of the children towards themselves as "mathematicians."
As children enter into the world of formal
classroom education, while knowledge of basic "arithmetic"
facts is essential - like the learning of the letters
of the alphabet and their associated sounds and uses,
thinking, problem solving, and other higher mathematical
tasks are the goals. Critical thinking skills and the
appreciation that there are multiple ways to arrive at
an answer are critical products of good learning experiences.
Children should have a variety of such experiences using
art, music, language (written and spoken), drama and other
physical activities in large and small groups, as well
as individual, learning settings. Activities should allow
children to experience and express themselves visually,
auditorally, kinesthetically, and emotionally. Since it
is well known that all learning is enhanced by realistic
challenges and suppressed by anxiety, the learning environment
should be a welcoming and safe place that promotes risk
taking while providing inviting challenges and authentic
So, what can we do as parents to support
our children in their personal development of "mathematical
power"? In selecting toys for children, choose items
that involve sorting and patterning activities with colors,
shapes and sizes. Recognize that authentic learning experiences
are not always "neat" and true immersion is
sometimes "messy." The old mudpie making of
days-gone-by in the backyard was truly a mathematical
experience. Activities using various sized containers
with water, rice, sand and clay provide children with
invaluable exploratory opportunities for learning about
dry and liquid measurement and relative capacities of
containers. Let your child help in your daily living activities
such as cooking, laundry, shopping and visiting the library.
Develop one-to-one correspondence by specific use of language,
such as, "Please give me three spoons." Model
counting out three spoons. Language and modeling in any
activity will support your child’s development of
mathematical power and general competency. Laundry provides
for sorting activities by multiple attributes such as
color, types and ownership of clothing (mommy’s,
daddy’s, etc), and things that come in pairs.
When your child goes to pre-school ask what
types of activities are planned and provided to develop
"mathematical power" and what types of manipulatives
are used. Visit the public library with your child and
look for picture books and stories with mathematical relevance
such as Benny’s Pennies and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
As your child enters elementary school, continue to ask
questions about the mathematics curriculum. Ask about
"Family Math Night" or think about initiating
one through your PTO.
Mathematics is a language, a tool, and a
system of relationships that supports daily living experiences.
Knowing how children learn, being able to provide for
meaningful experiences and advocating for children through
school involvement and the asking of key questions will
all go a long way in developing your child’s mathematical
Resources for Parents and Professionals
Poems To Count On-32 Terrific Poems and
Activities to Help Teach Math Concepts by Sandra Liatsos
Hickory Dickory Math-Teaching Math With Nursery Rhymes
and Fairy Tales by Cecelia Dinio-Durkin (Scholastic, 1997)
Gobble Up Math-Fun Activities to Complete and Eat by Sue
Mogard and Ginny McDonnell (The Learning Works, Inc. Santa
Barbara, CA, 1994)
The Math Chef by Joan D’Amico and Karen Eich Drummond
(John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1997)
Math Wizardry for Kids by Margaret Kenda and Phyllis Williams
Math Art- Projects and Activities by Carolyn Ford Brunetto
Look Around! A Book About Shapes by Leonard Everett Fisher
Sea Shapes by Suse MacDonald (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Twelve Ways to Get To Eleven by Eve Merriam (Simon and
Inch By Inch by Leo Lionni (Astor Honor, 1960)
Eating Fractions by Bruce McMillan (Scholastic, 1990)
Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews (Greenwillow, 1986)
Maureen McSparran Ruby, D.M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Reading and Language Arts
Principal Investigator, Federal Early Reading First Grant
Eastern Connecticut State University
83 Windham Street
Webb Hall 148
Willimantic, Ct 06226
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