Plenty of mamas with elementary education degrees have created super posts and printables that can help you teach your preschoolers math, all based on sound educational theory (for example, see here and here, and even here).
As a mama with no formal training in this area, I’ve stumbled upon a different approach.
Many preschoolers love to “help” out around the house. Fortunately, I have no qualms about putting my kiddos to work on age-appropriate tasks.
Household chores teach your kids a lot. Have them help you clean the bathroom, they’re somewhat less inclined to trash it. Have them help you make dinner, they’re more likely to want to eat it. Have them help you select veggies at the farmer’s market, they’re more eager to try said veggies when the time comes.
Like most mamas, I’m a multitasker, so I figured, Why stop there? Why not teach the girls some math while I put them to work?
Here are some of my favorite ways to sneak some math into your preschoolers while they pitch in at home:
1. Fold some laundry
“Folding laundry” has been one of the girls’ favorite household activities since they were babies: I fold, they play in the mountains of clean, warm fabric.
By the time Kimmie was in preschool, I figured it was time she could “help” with the folding and sorting, too.
Since we cloth-diapered our kiddos, our laundry included dozens of cloth diapers each week. One of Kimmie’s first laundry jobs was folding the clean diapers in half. Which meant I had to teach her what “half” means, and that two halves make a whole.
Once the diapers were folded, I had Kimmie divide them into two equal piles – half for upstairs, half for downstairs – and tell me how many were in each pile. We’d double-check her counting by adding the numbers in the two piles together, and seeing if we ended up with the same number of diapers as she’d started with before making two piles.
When Essie gave up napping (meaning fewer upstairs diaper changes), the piles shifted. Kimmie now had to put two diapers in the downstairs pile for every one that went upstairs – all the while keeping track of how many were in each stack, and how many clean diapers we had at each changing table once she added her newly-folded ones to the pile.
When Kimmie had mastered folding diapers, I taught her to fold washcloths and dishtowels into quarters. In the process we learned that you can make a square washcloth into four equal smaller squares, and that adding these four quarter-washcloths together equals one large washcloth again.
While you may not cloth-diaper your offspring, I’m sure you have some other laundry item that’s equally prevalent in your mountains of laundry-to-fold. Maybe your kiddos can make piles of each other’s clean underpants and count out how many go into each child’s drawer, or figure out who has the most clean T-shirts in that week’s wash, or pairs of socks that need folding.
2. Bake something together
Whether you follow an “English” or a metric cookbook, cooking is full of opportunities for preschoolers to learn and practice math skills. I find this especially true of baking, because there is so much measuring (and often, so much math) involved.
Before having one of the girls measure out 2 1/2 cups of flour, we draw it out on a piece of paper, by making two circles and a half-circle. Then I draw a line through the two full circles to make each circle into two halves.
So, if we need 2 1/2 cups of flour, Kimmie, how many times will you have to fill that half-cup measure to get the amount that we need?
Cooking according to English measurements all but requires the ability to make conversions like this all the time in one’s head. Suppose your recipe calls for 1/2 cup of butter (8 tablespoons) and you can only find two partial sticks in the fridge. Or suppose you need 1 1/2 tablespoons (4 1/2 teaspoons) of some spice, but your measuring tablespoon has gone missing. Or you’re out of eggs, so you have to make three eggs from the powdered egg you save for camping trips. One egg equals one tablespoon powder plus 1/4 cup warm water, so how do we make three eggs?
Or what if you need to double a recipe – then how much of everything will you need?
Calculations like these are second-nature to anyone who enjoys cooking or baking. So why not use these activities to teach your offspring some math at the same time?
3. Set the table
As soon as my girls could reach the top of the dinner table, I taught them how to set it (one less thing for me to worry about doing!). This is a good time to practice not only counting, but also adding and subtracting:
If all four of us are here for dinner tonight, then how many forks do we need? How many plates?
Oops, it looks like Mama’s napkin is still at her place from the last meal. So how many napkins do we still need if Mama already has one?
By dinnertime tomorrow, your grandparents will be here visiting – that makes the two of them, plus the four of us. So how many people will we need to set the table for tomorrow? And if we already have five chairs at the table, how many will we need to get out so that everyone has a place to sit?
Math also works when it comes to getting food onto plates. The rule in our house is that we always start lunch and dinner with vegetables for “appetizers,” before moving on to the other courses. So whenever Essie wants to “help” me make lunch these days, I usually put her in charge of divvying up the green beans or baby carrots or grape tomatoes between her plate and her sister’s, then have her count how many are on each plate.
4. Clean the house
My house doesn’t get a thorough top-to-bottom cleaning as often as I’d like. But now that the girls are past sleeping-infant-dom, the only way I have a prayer of getting some serious cleaning done is by putting them to work.
They are both accomplished bathroom-cleaners by now, with the exception of washing the mirror and scrubbing the toilet. Getting them to restock each bathroom’s toilet paper supply as we clean is a task even Essie can handle: Essie, each bathroom should have four spare rolls total. Can you figure out how many we need to add to each bathroom from the supply in the garage, and then go get them?
Kimmie, on the other hand, has long considered herself the queen of corner-dusting and vent-flipping. As she goes from one room to another, I have her keep track of how many corners she’s dusted and heating or cooling vents she’s flipped, a task we have to do each spring and fall whether the rest of the cleaning gets done or not.
Even everyday picking-up can be a chance to practice counting and math skills. When the girls just don’t want to put away their toys in the living room – and I’m equally uninspired by the mess before me in the kitchen – sometimes I’ll get out a die and we’ll take turns rolling it. Whatever number it lands on, we each have to put away that many items from our designated mess piles, and we race to see who can be done first. Or, sometimes, three-year-old Essie tries to put away three things before five-year-old Kimmie puts away five items, and I put away (5+3=8) items.
5. Have them pack
As I draft this post, we’re driving home from a long weekend at my in-laws’ house. Since all the girls’ grandparents live a day’s drive from us, visiting them always requires packing a suitcase.
Soon after Essie was born, I had Kimmie start helping me pack for these adventures.
So, Kimmie, if we’ll be gone four days, that means that you need four clean pairs of underpants. Can you please get them out for me?
And your sister’s currently going through five diapers during the day, and one diaper at night. How many daytime diapers and nighttime diapers do we need? Can you count them out for me? How many diapers does that make altogether?
If you each bring two sets of pajamas, how many sets of kiddo PJs do we need total?
Your sister eats 1/2 cup of baby oatmeal everyday for breakfast. How many cups of baby oatmeal mix should we pour out from our big box to bring with us?
And when they’re all done,
6. Reward them with some Screen Hypnosis
As I’ve noted before, we don’t watch broadcast TV in our home, nor do we have a cable or satellite subscription. Thus it wasn’t hard for us to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on keeping kids under age two away from TV watching and other forms of “screen time.”
But once Kimmie was old enough, one of the first things I popped into the DVD player for her to watch was a disc I’d purchased before she was born: an anniversary-edition special two-disc set of Schoolhouse Rock.
Those of you old enough to have spent some of your formative years in the 1970s or early 1980s (as I did) might remember the catchy educational segments that got mixed in with the other ads between shows on Saturday morning cartoons.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the music and cartoons have held up. And best of all, they’re as catchy as ever.
Well before her fifth birthday, Kimmie learned how to count by fives (and from there, how to multiply by fives and how to read minutes on an analog clock) from the fives song. And three-year-old Essie is fond of telling everyone that “three is a magic number” – and then counting out loud by threes, à la the song of that title, if they don’t believe her.
As any mama knows, putting your kids to work usually takes a lot longer than doing the job by yourself. But whenever this reality frustrates me, I remind myself that I’m teaching them important life skills from an early age. And the fact that I’ve figured out how to get them to practice their math skills at the same time is a bonus.
Have you found other ways to sneak some math into your preschoolers’ daily lives? If so, what are they?
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