Do you have a budding math genius in your house? Can he count to 100?
How old was your toddler when he first learned to count?
Whatever the age, more than likely he, or she, was just calling out words they had learned. One, two, three, four, five. Just words with little to no meaning. Maybe they learned them from songs, books, TV, or when you walked up the steps to her room counting “One, two, three”, a different number for each step.
Later in their development they begin to attach meaning, a quantity, to each word. They know what two cookies means. It is relevant to them and to their lives so it has meaning to them. Two puppies, two shoes, two socks will mean more at first than two days or two times. We need to be able to reach out and touch “2” before we are able to know what it means when we cannot touch it…like two weeks.
Laying concrete examples for our youngest learners cements their understanding of numbers. It’s fun to color and draw numerals and sing about them: “One, two, buckle my shoe”. But it’s much better to wash our two hands and put on our two shoes if we want them to gain a true sense of the number.
Although this prolonged emphasis on concrete quantities may seem silly or unnecessary, this foundation seems to make a difference down the line when something abstract like “dividing” comes on the scene. If the expectation from Day 1 has simply been to memorize the numbers, say them fast, say them slow, because they are so “easy”, then we are making it okay to memorize your way through math. Perhaps one reason math becomes such a dreaded subject for many children as they get older is because their habit has become memorizing, not understanding. And it becomes too complex to just memorize.
I remember in an early grade my son was rewarded with special 1:1 time with the principal because he “knew his numbers so well”. Every kid got his own roll of blank cash register tape. They started with 1, 2, 3, and kept writing the next number until the tape ran out. It was something they worked on at school when they finished their work early. Jeremy “won”. I still have the tape somewhere. He was way up close to 1000 when the project ended. This task really fit his learning style so he thought it was fun . A positive experience? Absolutely! Meaningful math experience? Not so much.
Once students master rote counting and can go on and on, start assigning value to the numbers. Place 3 cookies on a plate. Touch each one while counting, “One, two, three.” Stay at this level indefinitely.
As he gets older, begin to introduce the concepts of “more” and “less”. “Four cookies is more than two cookies”. Put 10 pennies in one stack. Then take 10 pennies and scatter them around the table and ask your child, “Which is more?”. Notice how he thinks about this. Does he see “so many” pennies lying around versus a small stack? Does he take the stack apart and count them? Does he match up the two groups 1:1 and see that they are really the same thing? That is a truer measure of understanding than writing or saying numbers forever.
In a way, this parallels two ways to learn to read. Phonetically, sounding out the letters to discover the word is one way. Memorizing T-H-E is another. Reading a story back to you that they’ve heard a thousand times is another. All of these ways lead to learning to read but they don’t necessarily all lead to becoming a good reader.
Enjoy watching your child learn and giving her opportunities to practice. Picking three flowers or choosing one popsicle. Not all the time though! Please just let them play most of all. Playing is learning’s best friend.
I also write for The Caffeine Coquette as The Learning Mom. Visit me there.