Activities like counting and playing games can go a long way in exposing young children to basic math concepts, writes Bryan Street, math coach at South Shore PK-8 School in Seattle.

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As a math specialist, the biggest issue I see in elementary-age children who struggle with math is a lack of “number sense.” They don’t have a feel for quantity, for the difference between seven and 70 and 700.

Young children need many experiences counting early on. For 3 to 5 year olds, this means starting with small numbers lower than 10. Here are some easy activities you can do with your child to help her develop her number sense.

Count with your child. When my children were toddlers, we took every opportunity to count together. While walking in the neighborhood, we would count how many dogs we saw, how many yellow flowers, how many red cars, how many trucks. How many wheels are on the car? On the truck? How many petals on the flower? How many legs on the dog? Answering “How many” questions is an important goal for kindergarteners.

Mathematize a read-aloud. When reading a favorite book to your child, take a moment to stop on a page and count: How many dinosaurs do you see? How many legs on this dinosaur? What about that one? Which has more? Books and stories provide an engaging opportunity for children to see math in their world.

Count collections. Present your child with a collection of objects like coins, beans, pebbles, bottle caps, puzzle pieces — anything will work. Start with a number lower than 10 and use bigger collections as your child experiences success. Ask him to record on a paper as he counts. The recording can be pictures of the objects and later might be something more abstract like tally marks. Afterwards, ask how many he counted.

Games. Here are some simple games you can play that involve counting:

  • Hide a number. Ask your child to count a group of objects like coins or beans or pebbles. Start with five or so and add more later, but keep it fewer than 10. After you agree on how many, ask your child to look the other way while you cover some with a cup. Then ask how many are hidden. Your child tries to figure out how many are hidden by counting how many are left. This is an important abstract skill that develops later than basic counting.
  • Bowling: Make bowling pins by filling liter soda bottles part way with sand. Your child rolls a ball to knock over the bottles. How many did he knock over? How many are left? You could start with five bottles and move on to nine or ten. He can play three rounds and keep track with tally marks, then count the tally marks to see how many total.
  • Dice games. You and your child each roll a die. Who has more? Who has less? How many more or less?
  • Card games. Take the face cards out of a deck of cards. You and your child each flip a card and compare. A young child is not expected to know the numerals, but can count the hearts, spades, diamonds or clubs on the card to know how many. She may even know who has more without counting, another important skill. Whoever has more takes the cards. If it’s a tie, flip again.
  • Board games. Games like Snakes and Ladders, Sorry and Trouble provide multiple opportunities to count. Rolling a die and moving a marker on the board is a kinesthetic way to understand quantity. With young children, stick with one die.

Mostly, remember to keep it light and fun. As much as anything, kindergarten teachers want children to come in with a positive attitude towards mathematics. Play off your child’s own interests, and make sure she experiences success. Remember that young children develop at different rates and your job is only to expose them to ideas, without expectations.

By developing a sense of quantity while allowing your child to see math as real in the world around her, and as something fun, you are laying the groundwork for future success with mathematics.

Bryan Street has worked as a teacher in Seattle Public Schools for 22 years. He is currently math coach at South Shore PK-8 School.

Are you the parent of a preschool-age child? What strategies have you tried for introducing him or her to math? Tell us in the comments section.