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.