You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go
Every June, across the nation, thousands of people celebrate as relatives and friends graduate from high school. In July, parents start shopping for XL twin sheets, desk lamps, and other dormitory accoutrements. By August, these same parents will be seeing their children off to college. After parent orientation, the parents will hug their children and tearfully leave them to experience college life and begin an amazing journey of personal growth into adulthood. The parents will have that long drive back home and either share or silently remember special moments from when their children were young.
So, what’s the connection to mathematics? What are some lessons that could be learned from these parents of recent high school graduates that could be shared with parents of young children who are not yet enrolled in kindergarten? Let’s talk about a few, with some help from Dr. Seuss.
“You have brains in your head.” – A baby’s brain has the capacity to form more than 1 million new neural connections EVERY second. Neural connections are made through the interaction of genes, but more importantly, it is the baby’s environment and experiences that impact them the most. One of the most important factors is frequent, positive interaction with the baby and the adult. The baby coos and the adult responds, the baby coos again and the adult speaks to the child, creating a cycle of serve and return, which continues numerous times a day during the early years.
A colleague and I recently attended the Early Math Symposium in Woodland, CA, where we were fortunate enough to see numerous presentations on the importance of early mathematics. One of the many insights we learned was that, “children who have rich and supportive early math experiences are significantly more likely to excel in school. These positive experiences help children gain critical skills necessary for school and career success.”
“You have feet in your shoes.” – Dr. Megan Franke, Professor of Education at UCLA, was the keynote speaker at this symposium. She shared the importance of providing many opportunities to count items and reflect on children’s thinking, to scaffold learning, and to share math problems in a fun, story-setting way. Stories can provide valuable context for counting. For example, “Three cows are outside. Two more cows join them. How many cows do we have total?” Dr. Franke validated our beliefs, which are based on research showing that adults should give children many opportunities to explore math in a meaningful way beyond rote counting.
“You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” – Children are born with a natural curiosity that often involves math concepts. Through play, it is best to follow their lead to discover items to count and situations to “mathematize.”
If you have young children, attempt to incorporate these early math concepts in their world of play, but more importantly, enjoy the time you spend with them. Very shortly, they will have wonderful places to go because you chose to “do the math” with them.