Let’s Talk About Math

 Much of my research at Northwestern focuses on children’s learning of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and how media can be used to help preschool-aged children learn science and math specifically. You might be asking yourself, “Why on earth does my 3-year old need to learn math? There are more important skills for her to be learning.”

Math and science may seem like advanced skills for preschoolers to be learning, but simple math learning in preschool (like counting, sorting objects and ordering things from smallest to biggest) are associated with long-term learning. For example, research that tracked children from preschool to age 15 shows that math learning in preschool predicts math achievement in high school.

But outside of school, parents can also help their children learn math by engaging in math talk. Math talk isn’t just talking about math; it’s finding opportunities in everyday interactions and play where math can become part of the conversation. For example, in playing with blocks, parents can talk about shapes, the number of blocks, which blocks are bigger, or sort the blocks by shape. Another example is engaging children in other activities, such as cooking, playing board games and grocery shopping where opportunities to talk about numbers, quantities and measurement come up naturally and can be elaborated on.

Perhaps most important, research shows that parent math talk can help children start to talk about – and think about – math. First, research shows that parent talk about math during a play session predicts their child’s talk about math. This is likely because when parents talk about math, their child responds about math. Children may also bring up math first, and then their parent responds with more math talk. Interestingly, research shows that maternal support, including math talk, in preschool was associated with children’s math ability at age 7.

Despite the importance of engaging children in math activities and conversations, much research shows that many parents have math anxiety, or a fear or apprehension of math. Instead of looking for opportunities to discuss math with their children, research suggests that parents with math anxiety avoid behaviors or interactions in which they may have to talk about math, even with their young children. More important, parents who are anxious about math may influence their children’s math learning. One study showed that parents with math anxiety who helped their child learn math more had children who learned less compared to parents with math anxiety who attempted to help their children less.

Should parents who feel anxious about math avoid talking to their kids about math?

There are ways in which parents with math anxiety can interact with their children to promote math learning. Specifically, learning tools like math apps have been shown to help parents talk to their children about math. One study using an app called “Bedtime Math” showed that using the app a couple times a week improved first graders’ math skills over the course of the school year. Importantly, the app was especially helpful for kids whose parents reported that they were anxious about teaching their child math, suggesting the app supported parents who were especially anxious about teaching their child math.

If parents feel apprehensive about talking about math, it may help to find apps, books and toys that help communicate math concepts to children. Math learning is important in the early years, and these learning tools can help children and parents become comfortable with math.

Young Children Can Build Science Skills with Spatial Play

In 2009, the U.S. ranked 20th out of 67 countries in science, way below the international average, and in 2012 the U.S. dropped another four spots in rank. In response, President Obama released a report on how to improve interest and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. There’s since been a huge educational push to incorporate more STEM principles into K-12 curriculum, with the hope that today’s children will be more likely to pursue STEM disciplines when they grow up.

But research is emerging that suggests children can learn STEM principles before they enter formal schooling. Specifically, research shows that spatial play – playing with puzzles, blocks and shapes – promotes spatial skills, which are essential for success in STEM disciplines.

You’re probably thinking: What spatial skills can a 2-year-old learn? Is playing with Legos really going to help my child become an engineer?

First, playing with spatial toys gives children multiple opportunities to learn spatial skills. For example, fitting a 3-D shape or a puzzle piece into its slot teaches children spatial transformation (i.e., the skill that makes you really good at moving an object so that it fits into your trunk). In fact, research shows that this skill is important for succeeding in higher STEM education like dental school, where students have to know (and mentally rotate) the 3-D structure of teeth.

Second, many research studies suggest early spatial skills may be important for developing STEM skills, specifically math skills. For example, research shows that spatial skills at age 3 predict math skills at age 4, and other research shows that spatial skills measured in first or second grade predicted children’s improvement in math performance at the end of the school year.

Although these studies only measured children’s learning over the course of a year, they provide initial evidence that spatial learning contributes to the development of STEM skills. So far, there is no direct evidence showing that spatial play in early childhood predicts STEM success in adulthood, but research has linked spatial play with spatial skills, which have been shown to be important for STEM success in adolescents and adults.

Another way spatial toys may promote spatial skills is by prompting parents to use spatial language with their children. For example, parents may use spatial language to describe objects in a way that draws children’s attention to the spatial aspects of the shapes, like calling a circle “curved” or describing a triangle as having three points. Similarly, parents may describe what the child is doing with the object, which can help the child conceptualize their spatial play (“Does it fit in there? It’s a rectangle, so try turning it again”). A longitudinal research study shows that parents’ use of spatial language at 14- to 16-months predicted children’s spatial language and performance on a number of spatial tests at age 4.

Although we need more research, young children may benefit from playing with spatial toys like blocks, puzzles and shapes. Playing with Legos may not give children all the skills they need to be astronauts and doctors, but playing with spatial toys may give them the hands-on experience they need to at least begin thinking like a scientist.