Finding Meaningful Mathematics at 4 Years Old

My 4-year-old grandson and I have been spending a lot of time together. Without him realizing, we have been doing and talking more mathematics around the house. The other day I was rebuilding a gate and while I was measuring a board to cut, he picked up the tape measure wanting to help out. So I took him over to the old gate and extending out the tape I asked him the length of one of the boards. He looked at the tape and began counting the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…stopping at the last number exposed on the tape measure… 9! I then asked him, “9 what?” He doesn’t have much experience with measurement so he responds with “minutes!” I laughed a little and explained inches. For the next 30 minutes he walked around the yard with the tape measure, measuring everything he could and then running over to me to tell me how many inches each item was. At one point, he extended the tape measure up to the top of the fence, which is quite high for a 4-year-old, looked up to the top where the beginning of the tape measure was and then told me, “Papa this one’s too big.” He needed to count from one, but since he couldn’t see and point at the one on the tape, he couldn’t count the numbers to find a length.

My grandson counted many times that afternoon, self-initiated. His desire, with just a little direction, gave him multiple experiences with counting which is helping him to come to know numbers. From counting screws while he helped me assemble his bed frame to counting consecutive catches without dropping a baseball, we are talking math in ways that he finds enjoyable and exciting. I already have so many stories of days like that where math opportunities happened in his everyday life. We need kids to count, but also want them to have authentic experiences that provide meaning and motivation for them.

New brain science tells us that no one is born with a math gift or a math brain, and that all children can succeed in math with the right messages and experiences. Many people across the U.S. have major misconceptions about mathematics learning, thinking that mathematics is a subject confined to memorization and speed. People really believe that those who do not calculate fast or memorize well do not have the “math gene.” We need to shift the conversations about mathematics. We need to expand mathematics and open the doors of mathematics to all children. We need to take advantage of daily situations to encourage mathematics for children in their world by making it authentic and motivational. When we do this we will see many more creative, energized young people equipped to think quantitatively about our ever-changing world.

In what ways do you help children in your life see the mathematics in their world?

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