Measurements of student academic performance around the world continuously show that school children in the United States are falling behind their peers from other industrialized nations, particularly when it comes to math.
And while much emphasis is being put on improving the quality of the nation’s schools, Elon psychology professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler says there’s much that can be done before a child’s formal education begins.
“Research has shown that the early activities in which children engage related to mathematics are very predictive of their subsequent success in mathematics achievement,” says Vandermaas-Peeler, whose research focuses on the informal learning that happens at home, particularly as it relates to numeracy, the functional use of mathematics in everyday life. “I think it’s interesting to look at how they learn in fun activities such as playing games or cooking with a parent.”
Children learn through social interaction, she explains, and once they become proficient at what they already know how to do, they like to practice those skills, even if many times they don’t know how to apply them. For instance, she says, children may not know how to answer if you ask them how many of something they have because they don’t recognize that counting is a strategy. So what would happen if parents simply remind their children to use math while playing games or during other daily activities?
Vandermaas-Peeler has found the answer in her research. In one of her studies, she asked half the parents who were participating to use math during a game. “You might ask your child how to count or you might try some basic addition and subtraction,” she told the group. She encouraged the parents to use questions such as this one: If I take away two of your cards, how many do you have left?
The results? Children in that group were twice as likely to use numeracy. At the same time, parents were much more likely to ask their children to count by themselves and encourage them to extend their skills.
“These parents were saying to us later, ‘I had no idea all the ways that we could talk about numbers and how excited my child would be to talk about numbers,’” Vandermaas-Peeler says, adding that one of the children in the study started charging admission into his bedroom while another started asking to help make change at the grocery store. “They just began thinking and talking about numbers in a different way.”
Vandermaas-Peeler would like to continue raising awareness about the importance of numeracy at an early age. Her next study will look at children from low-income backgrounds, who have been shown to be more likely to struggle academically, especially in math. Often, when these children come to school, there is a home context for learning and a school context for learning, a gap that needs to be bridged.
“I believe it’s really important to involve the parents in this, not just let the teachers focus on it but show the parents how easy it is to include mathematics in everyday activities,” she says. “All around the world, children are given an opportunity to practice mathematics but research has been very slow to pick up on that.”
“It’s definitely time we take a look at numeracy and mathematics, and I think the perfect time to start doing that is when children are 2, 3 and 4 years old,” she adds. “They find it fun. They love these activities and it becomes an important context to support early learning that is likely to have a positive impact on their subsequent school achievement.”