It is no secret that many students suffer from math anxiety. For some, the sight of a math problem on the page simply causes the brain to go into lock-up. After this happens, the student will simply guess about how to proceed with the problem rather than actually think about how to solve it.
If you couple knowledge with good old-fashioned practice and confidence, then you do not need to have problems with anything you tackle in school, especially math. If you believe that you are good at something, then given enough determination you usually can be good at it. This holds true for all levels of math, from the most basic addition all the way to advanced algebra, calculus, and beyond.
The question then becomes, How can we increase a child’s math skills? How can we help him gain confidence, so that when the going gets tough or he makes a mistake, he forges on and overcomes the obstacle rather than giving up?
One concrete way to do this is to integrate math into your children’s lives from a very young age. When you think about it for a moment, none of us has any difficulty speaking the English language, but learning any foreign language is most certainly more complicated than learning basic math. Think of all of the elements involved in learning a language: words and definitions, verb conjugations, sentence structure, inflection in the voice, etc., and all of this is learned before 4 years of age and without any textbook at all!
In short, learning to speak any language seems to be easy because we were immersed in it from a very young age. We need to take the same approach with math.
The trick is to integrate basic math into everyday life before your child even realizes he or she is “learning” something. Look for ways to creatively bring math into the child’s activities—ways that are actually fun so that from the beginning he or she associates math with positive thoughts.
One opportunity to do this occurs when your preschooler “helps” you in the kitchen. Most kids love to help Mom or Dad cook dinner. In our home, from an early age we let our child help measure out ingredients into the mixing bowl. We began with measuring teaspoons of sugar, salt, and whatever else the recipes called for. We gradually moved to measuring cups of water when making soups, measuring out beans, and the like. If anything can be measured, our son does the measuring. The beauty of this is that he never tires of it, and from a very early age he learned a use for counting. Believe it or not, measuring three tablespoons of flour does teach the concept of numbers to children in a very solid way.
As a bonus, our child quickly wanted to know what the fractions listed on the measuring cup were, so we began to “teach” fractions by having him measure out all of the fractional ingredients as well. Fractions are actually a sticking point for many people, even adults, so if you can break down barriers early on, it can only be a plus.
Fractions can be introduced more concretely in any number of ways. When making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we have always quartered the sandwich. You can take this opportunity to count the quarters and point out that there are four quarters in a whole sandwich. Going a step further, you can put two of the four pieces of the sandwich together and show how two quarters equals half of a sandwich! This may seem trivial to you and me, but you have just demonstrated to a 4-year-old how to simplify the fraction 2/4 to 1/2!
Other areas of math can be introduced to young children without too much trouble. For example, each week you can have your child record his or her height on a simple table. In the first column, record the week number (week 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), and in the second column record the height measured in inches or centimeters.
The beauty of this is that you can get a multitude of benefit from this simple exercise. First, you can teach about how people grow and get a science lesson in. Second, your child will learn about measurements and how to read a ruler or tape measure. Third, after a few weeks or months have gone by, you can plot the results on graph paper. On the horizontal axis will be the week number, and on the vertical axis will be the height. Your child will love plotting his or her height and will learn about graphing in the process! Reading a chart is a very important skill that many adults have problems with, so breaking down barriers such as this at an early age will be of great benefit.
These are just a few examples of how to integrate math into your daily routine. It does take effort to do this, especially in the beginning, but you will find that doing this will in the long run make your child more comfortable with math. It will become something familiar rather than an abstract topic that is difficult to understand. Learning math is all about building both knowledge and confidence. If math concepts are introduced in the right way, your child can be motivated to want to continue learning—and this is a goal that all parents strive to attain.
Copyright 2008, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.