Making math second nature: everyday life as a 24/7 classroom

Kids who dislike math—or at least, don’t love it--often ask, with heavy sigh and roll of the eyes, “And just when exactly am I going to use this?” The question arises most often around higher-level math, but it frequently starts coming into play much earlier. Showing kids how one aspect of math connects to another and also how it relates to everyday life, is part of the incentive behind initiatives such as Common Core Standards and website resources such as Math in Daily Life – How do numbers affect everyday decisions?, from Annenberg Learner, part of the Annenberg Foundation.

Math is a universal language, and U.S. students, on average, are not as fluent in it as young people in other parts of the world. Last year The Huffington Post described highlights from a report published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, showing that students in several countries are making academic gains at two and three times the rate of U.S. students. The article noted that on an international exam, “American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.”

Everyday life brings countless opportunities for “math lessons.” Parents can use ordinary experiences, ranging from setting the table to buying school clothes to measuring the living room for carpeting, as learning activities and teachable math moments for preschoolers on up. Making it a habit to involve kids in age-appropriate ways, with choices that involve numbers, pricing, and volume, makes math more real and useful.

The Zero to Three® program from the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, offers some terrific ideas for developing early math skills. The website notes that “Math skills are just one part of a larger web of skills that children are developing in the early years—including language skills, physical skills, and social skills. Each of these skill areas is dependent on and influences the others.” As just one example, basic spatial concepts such as up and down or bigger and smaller, also relate to language/vocabulary use, as well as skills such as estimating, comparing, sorting, and classifying,

Patterns in nature also help introduce and reinforce math concepts and principles, while simultaneously teaching science. What shape is a butterfly’s wing? Older children can estimate the diameter of a tree, or when seeing a broken or chopped tree trunk, can discuss the tree’s age based on its concentric growth rings. They can also spot symmetry and asymmetry in parts, pieces, and patterns. Ask your child to identify patterns in things around you—both natural and manmade--such as the bricks in a building, piano keys, quilts, or spiderwebs. Encourage kids to draw the patterns or to describe how the patterns would continue.

Preschool apps that focus on early math skills and workbooks that supplement preschool and elementary grade classroom lessons, expand the learning—and the fun! Math is key to making sound decisions and unlocking so many “real-world” solutions. Show kids what a powerful and practical tool it is.