Especially for Parents: Math, and Children, Are Amazing

by Angie Williams

“We can encourage mathematical exploration and knowing in kids when we allow them to merge with the physical world and immerse their full selves in it.” — Wendy L. Ostroff, Exchange Magazine

You have likely seen the recent headlines regarding learning loss among elementary and middle school students during the pandemic. One theory to emerge from the studies around the results is that math scores fell further than reading because it is easier and more natural for parents and caregivers to support reading skills at home. Reading books together is a ritual many families begin at birth (or before!) and continue for years. Understanding how to support math skills as part of a family’s regular routine can feel a bit more challenging.

Fortunately, as with many areas of child development, children’s brains are wired for learning math; it is up to caring adults to offer opportunities and experiences that build mathematical connections simply by allowing children to do what they love, asking questions, and encouraging exploration.

In a recent Exchange Magazine article, The Embodied Nature of Mathematical Learning, Wendy L. Ostroff argues that their outcomes improve when children use their whole bodies to learn and develop mathematical thinking. She discusses how finger counting, movement accompanied by rhythms and sounds, and gesturing all contribute to greater understanding of mathematical concepts and improved problem-solving skills.

For example, “Brain studies using fMRI have shown that children who are taught to solve math problems using gestures (instead of verbal explanations alone), are more likely to recruit the motor regions of the brain when solving future problems.”

So how can we incorporate supportive practices into our daily routines at various stages of our children’s development? We can sing with children and use our bodies while we are doing so. We can spend time with our children outside, engaging with natural objects whose properties teach children about math and physics. We can encourage children to count with their fingers—or their whole bodies! We can ask children questions while they are playing with their toys: which one is bigger? What happens if you put this one on top? How could you sort these objects?

As an adult, it is sometimes easy for me to think about math as something I conduct in an Excel worksheet—a practice fairly limited in scope. But when I consider the ways in which children learn about math, I am reminded how amazing mathematical concepts are in helping us understand and describe the world, and how children’s brains and bodies are already made to fully engage with math in a three-dimensional way, with support from the adults around them:

“If we instead configure kids’ mathematical experiences and lessons as situated, whole-body endeavors, we embrace the beauty and depth, elegance and nuance, from which their cognitive skills have already evolved and developed.”

Wendy L. Ostroff, Exchange Magazine