We’ve heard how beneficial it is to read to our kids before bed, sing songs and practice recognizing letters. There is little doubt that doing these things at an early age better prepares children for success in school. Word play is an important part of child development.
Words? Sure we get that. But what about numbers? Should we also be talking to our kids about math concepts? Are kids’ brains ready to soak this in too?
According to recent studies the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Early “number talk” is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. This makes sense. Children between the ages of 14 and 30 months are rapidly developing their vocabularies. The more often we include math or number vocabulary in our conversations with young children, the more familiar these words and concepts are going to be for them when they reach school.
And yet, according to psychologist Susan Levine of the University of Chicago, “early number talk” is by no means common. In 2010, Levin published a study that showed large gaps in how often families used number vocabulary. Using recordings of parents talking to their kids, Levin, showed that while it was not uncommon for some children to hear number language 1,800 times a week, other kids were only hearing about two dozen number words weekly.
Additionally, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, we practice “number talk” with boys far more often than we do with girls.
In this study, Alicia Chang, a researcher at the University of Delaware, also using a series of collected recordings, found that mothers talked to their girl toddlers about number concepts only about half as often as they did with boys.
It might not come naturally at first, but with a little top of mind awareness, parents can easily make “number talk” with children a habit. Here are some great places to start:
- Play impromptu counting games: How many cars do you meet on the way to the store? How many trucks? How many signs? How many toys or books did you pull out? How many plates on the table?
- Find numbers in the environment: on signs, clocks, temperature readings, channels, volume bars, calendars.
- Talk about numbers in the weather (inches of rain or snow, temperatures, wind speeds).
- Discuss different measurements: estimate length or height of vehicles, buildings, people, animals, plants and trees.
- Discuss distance by counting things like steps. Count cracks/sections in the sidewalk.
- Sometimes it’s fun to time events. How long does it take to brush teeth, put on boots or put away toys?
- Older children often have fun using numbers in discussions about sports, video games, or history.
- And finally, in a follow up study, Levin found that one of the most supportive kinds of number talk involved counting or labeling sets of between four and ten objects: How many apples are in the fruit bowl? How many shirts in the laundry basket?
Opportunities for number play are all around us. With a little effort, it’s easy and fun to work numbers into the conversations we have with young children. Making this a habit will pay big dividends when they reach school.