You Don’t Have to be a Mathematician to Teach Your Child Math Skills

You Don’t Have to be a Mathematician to Teach Your Child Math Skills

If you asked most parents to name a fun way that they can teach their children letter names and basic reading skills, they could probably guess that one answer is reading to their children. But if you asked parents to name a fun way to teach their children math skills, they might look at you in surprise and ask “Is there a fun way to learn math?” It turns out that lots of parents think that math is a difficult subject that is hard to teach.  Yet number and other basic math skills are just as important to school readiness as early literacy skills. And teaching your children those basic concepts CAN be fun!

Some of the basic skills that your child needs to know before she goes to school include: number sense (being able to accurately count forward and backwards in sequence), geometry (recognizing shapes as well as directions  like “up” “down” in space), measurement (finding height, weight, and length of objects  as well as being able to compare sizes to know which object is bigger or smaller/holds more or less), patterns (understanding how things proceed in order and being able to make predictions based on what happened before), estimation/probability (being able to make a good guess about the size of something, how much an object will hold, what is likely to happen). For more detailed and helpful descriptions of the kinds of skills that different age children show check out the Zero to Three and PBS web sites.

That may sound like a LOT of skills. As a parent, you may have visions of needing to buy math textbooks and workbooks to get your child up to speed. But helping your child with basic math skills can be as easy as taking a walk and talking about how some trees are taller or shorter than others or counting the numbers of cars parked on the left side of the street. Learning math concepts can (and should be) FUN! And there are lots of ways to work math into your daily activities. Here are a few ideas:

  • Count everything. If you are doing laundry, count the clothes. If you are in the grocery store, count the number of aisles you go up and down (two good spatial words) or the number of cans on a shelf. Count cars, airplanes, birds, squirrels, snacks, blocks, legos….You get the picture. There are also a lot of great board games that let children practice counting like Candyland and Hi Ho! Cherry-O.
  • Talk about shapes anywhere and everywhere you see them. Riding in the car, you can ask your child to point out things that are shaped like rectangles, or circles. Find shapes in the pictures in books. Play with blocks and name their shapes. Once you start looking, you won’t be able to stop seeing shapes. Working on puzzles is also a fun activity to help children learn about spatial relations.
  • Compare sizes. Talk about how some things are bigger or smaller than others. “Do you see the red truck over there? It is bigger than the blue truck behind it.” And then add information about which truck might be able to carry more boxes, or gorillas, or dinosaurs. Using different sized containers to fill with water, sand, or other materials is a fun hands-on activity for comparing sizes.
  • Notice and make patterns. Point out patterns in everyday life, like the stripes on the US flag or colors on a tile floor. Then let your child make his own patterns with blocks, or drawings, or beads, or even peas and carrots at the dinner table.
  • Make predictions about things and tell your child why you made the prediction. This will help your child learn about problem solving and estimation. So you might say something like “I bet that red truck could carry four gorillas and that blue truck could carry two gorillas. Do you know why? It’s because that red truck is about two times bigger than the blue truck. So the red truck could carry two more gorillas than the blue truck.” You would be introducing a bunch of math concepts in that conversation and helping your child understand how you reasoned about a question.
  • Use math words as much as you can. And we don’t mean words like “Pythagorean theorem”. We mean words like “two” and “square”. One research study found that when preschool teachers used more math words in everyday conversations (like saying “You two can play over here” instead of “You can play over here”), the children they taught improved their math skills more than children with teachers who did not use as many math words.

There are LOTS of other ways to work math into everyday activities. Check out our list of resources below.

One really important thing to remember about teaching your child math skills is that saying negative things like “Math is hard” or “I never liked math” is not helpful.  Studies have shown that parents’ negative feelings about math might even decrease older children’s math performance. So, whether you loved numbers in third grade or hate the very mention of the word “fractions”, show your children a positive attitude towards math. And get ready to play games and activities that make learning about math fun for BOTH of you!

Resources for math activities:

Zero to Three’s tips for teaching math to preschoolers:

PBS Parents’ Preschool & Kindergarten math activities (they also have activities for babies and toddlers):

Preschool math activities from

A great blog by a math teacher on talking about math with kids:

Image: © Reno12 |


Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


Leave a reply