Gabriel Garcia, 3, loves his Matchbox cars. Sometimes when he’s playing with them, his mother, Piam, slips in some math practice. “Gabe, how many cars do you see?” She sorts them by color. “How many red cars?” He can count to 10, but she wants to make sure he understands what the numbers mean. “Before, when he started, he was just memorizing,” she explains from their home in Staten Island, New York.
A recent Child Development study underscores the importance of precisely this type of play for budding brains. Beth Casey and other Boston College researchers found that:
3-YEAR-OLDS WHOSE MOTHERS NURTURED THEIR MATH SKILLS THROUGH PLAY — BY ENGAGING IN LABELING SET SIZES — PERFORMED BETTER ON PRESCHOOL AND FIRST-GRADE MATH SKILLS TESTS THAN THOSE WHOSE MOTHERS DIDN’T.
And it appears the benefits stretch well beyond elementary school: Earlier research revealed that kids with high math skills when they start kindergarten not only perform better in school but go on to earn higher incomes. To unpack the link between math-related activities at home and early numerical skills, Casey and her team zeroed in on the types of activities that foster these skills. They watched videotaped sessions of 140 Boston mothers and their 3-year-olds playing with toy cash registers and LEGO Duplo blocks. The team assessed how often mothers demonstrated behavior supporting the development of three concepts earlier studies had determined were fundamental to kids’ counting knowledge:
1) identifying numbers (for instance, asking a child to name the number on a cash register button)
2) one-to-one counting (such as counting pennies)
3) labeling the size of sets of objects (such as referring to a pair of blocks with the word two)
The researchers then analyzed how the children fared on math tests — given at age 4 and a half, and again in first grade. In the first test, most of the problems were about quantities of objects, while the version they took in first grade also included simple addition and subtraction problems. Turns out the third type of activity — labeling the sizes of sets of objects — was significantly correlated with children’s test performances. This was true even after controlling for mothers’ education level and other factors.
It may not be unusual for a kid that age to be able to count a row of three pennies, but, says Elizabeth Gunderson of Temple University, the words one and three “may not have any more meaning than eenie-meenie-miney-mo.” By labeling set sizes, they begin to understand that the last number they say when counting a group of objects represents its quantity — a concept known as cardinality that is crucial for mastering addition and subtraction.
Still, the study is merely correlative, meaning it’s not conclusive that mothers who label set sizes with their 3-year-olds can accelerate the development of their math skills, Gunderson says. Casey agrees, saying the link between labeling set sizes and later math skills “is only suggestive.” But, she’s quick to add, “It can’t hurt.” And while Casey’s study focused on mothers, it doesn’t mean “just moms can do this,” she says. “Anybody can.”
Start with one object, a jellybean, for instance, and say, “There is one jellybean here. Let’s count it.” Point to the jellybean and say, “There is just one jellybean here.” Repeat with many different types of objects before moving on to two jellybeans, three and so on. Eventually you can start asking, “How many jellybeans are there?” Instruct your child to touch each jellybean as she counts. Then ask again how many jellybeans there are. Patience is required — “It’s a slow process,” Casey notes — but special tools or equipment are not.
Piam Garcia takes advantage of everyday situations, asking Gabe to count kitchen utensils as she pulls them from the drawer. “That’s why this research is exciting,” Casey says. “It’s not something that a parent needs to be trained to do.” Raising an Einstein — or at least a preschool or first-grade math whiz — might really be as easy as 1, 2, 3.