Hearing about math at the table can improve preschoolers’ skills
Mothers who discuss simple arithmetic with their preschoolers at the dinner table can improve their children’s grasp of math. That’s according to a new study by researchers at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University and at University of Michigan.
The study is part of a broader effort to bring the kind of focus on early literacy to mathematics, says co-author Pamela Davis-Kean, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for the Analyses of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood.
“I think many researchers thought of math as ‘taught’ rather than something that is also based on early interactions, as we know occurs with literacy and reading,” she says.
The study — of which Davis’ former student, María Inés Susperreguy, an assistant professor at the Chilean school, is lead author — tracked 40 families over a three-day period and recorded their conversations. The mothers filled out surveys about their education and household income, and then a year later they evaluated their children’s math skills.
The study, Davis admits, is small and not representative. “We had a higher-educated group of mothers, because we had a hard time recruiting those with high school or less education,” she says. But the study suggests that parents do tend to talk about math and numbers in the home, she says.
“When there were more of these conversations — controlling for education and other factors — children did better a year later in math achievement,” Davis says. “Higher-educated parents seem to already be doing these activities, and it would be good to consider ways to make this easier for mothers (and fathers) with lower levels of education to incorporate these in their daily conversations.”
A ‘common sense’ study
At the simplest level, Susperreguy and Davis’ study confirms what is “common sense,” says Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, the founder of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit which sends daily math problems to parents to share with their kids.
“When kids hear subject matter from their parents, whom they often want to imitate, it leads to good outcomes,” says Overdeck, a board member at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. “Just as reading a bedtime story leads kids to read for pleasure as adults, talking about math can lead to ‘math for pleasure’ — a phrase we don’t hear very often.”
At Bedtime Math, Overdeck has found that parents who are less comfortable with their math skills, or have “math anxiety,” are less likely to discuss numbers with their kids. Those parents tend, she says, to be less-educated and lower-income.
Overdeck’s nonprofit tries to “win parents over to math” through “playful math riddles that parents can do with their kids.” That, she says, includes math problems about ninjas, flamingos, chocolate chips, and “anything kids really love.” Susperreguy and Davis’ study, she thinks, points in a similar trajectory.
“We need to catch kids and inspire a love of math in them before they encounter it in school,” she says.
Miriam Gedwiser, a New York-based mom of three and a former math teacher, talks about math a lot with her 6- and 3-and-a-half-year-old children. (Gedwiser, a “lawyer on break” who is currently an adult educator, also has a 13-month-old.)
“I taught kids in high school, who were still struggling with what division really is. The idea is for my kids to be able to do these things intuitively and later attach the correct words,” she says. “I want them to develop numeracy and mathematical intuition, helping them understand the relationships between numbers and how different operations work.”
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