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The value of parents’ contributions to their young children’s mathematics understanding May 15, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education.
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 from Jana Kokkinos

In her first post, Jana Kokkinos points to the many ways in which parents of young children can help them to understand fundamental mathematical concepts through play and everyday experience.

Too often, young children’s mathematical capabilities are underestimated (Anderson, Anderson & Thauberger, 2008; Clements & Sarama, 2007; Papic, Mulligan & Bobis, 2009). Take, for example, the scenario of little David, nearly four years old (Pound, 2006). David displayed natural curiosity of mathematics during bath-time at home with his mother. He was eager to know the number of bristles on a nail brush. At this point, it may be accepted (perhaps even expected) that carrying the conversation further with such a young child would be futile. Why? There may be the assumption that further explanation may be fruitless as David will not be able to understand the complexities of grouping and counting so many bristles therefore there would be no point in discussing it. A three-year-old child will most certainly not understand large two-digit numbers?! Perhaps numbers bigger than five or ten at this stage may cause confusion and therefore inhibit further understanding?! Not so. Let’s read on and find out what happened.

David’s mother took the time to describe in detail the procedure needed to work out how many bristles the nail brush had. She talked about grouping in clusters and counting the number of bristles in each cluster: “36 lots of eight bristles” (Pound, 2006, p. 13). What do you think happened next? Over the following few days, David’s mother reported that she had observed some amazing mathematics understanding during David’s play with animals, blocks and small cars. He was grouping his toys and saying, “Oh look! I’ve got six lots of two. I’ve got three lots of three” (Pound, 2006, p. 13).

Stories like this need to be shared to exemplify the mathematical competencies of young children, and to show the importance of developing fundamental mathematical ideas through everyday experiences, conversations and general resources. Such stories also show that parents have a greater influence than they know towards developing their children’s mathematical ideas. Parents are often unaware that children explore various mathematics principles in their play (Ginsburg & Ertle, 2008). However, this does not mean that parents are unable to extend their children’s thinking about mathematics principles through play and other daily activities.

Young-Loveridge found that “children whose families give mathematics a high profile in their day-to-day lives develop a greater enthusiasm for mathematics” (as cited in Pound, 2006, p. 143). Although the frequency and quality of mathematical experiences elicited in the home environment may vary greatly (Graham, Nash & Paul, 1997), it is important for parents to understand the value of their contributions to their children’s mathematical development. Many research studies have shown a direct link between children’s development of number concepts before school and their mathematics success throughout schooling (Aubrey, Dahl & Godfrey, 2006; Mousley & Perry, 2009). This is significant information because, among many other things, it tells us that children can increase their mathematics understanding before school and parents can be proactive in their children’s mathematics achievement.

A great starting point for parents of young children is to engage in play with their children, talk/sing frequently about numbers, read books that connect with mathematical ideas, create and re-create patterns, actively encourage children to solve problems, and not for one second believe that your child is incapable. Explore, investigate, discuss and do it all over again! Children are highly capable mathematical thinkers and parents are highly capable teachers of mathematical principles.

Stay tuned to this blog for upcoming tips on encouraging mathematical thinking through everyday activities and readily available, inexpensive resources.

References:  Anderson, A., Anderson, J., & Thauberger, C. (2008). Mathematics learning and teaching in the early years. In O.N. Saracho & B. Spodek. (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on mathematics in early childhood education. (pp. 95-132). USA: Information Age Publishing.  Aubrey, C., Dahl, S., & Godfrey, R. (2006). Early mathematics development and later achievement: further evidence. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18(1), 27-46. Clements, D.H., & Sarama, J. (2007). Early childhood mathematics learning. In F.K. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 461-554). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Ginsberg, H.P., & Ertle, B. (2008). Knowing the mathematics in early childhood mathematics. In O.N. Saracho & B. Spodek. (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on mathematics in early childhood education. (pp. 45-66). USA: Information Age Publishing. Graham, T.A., Nash, C., & Paul, K. (1997). Young children’s exposure to mathematics: The child care context. Early Childhood Education Journal, 25 (1), p. 31-38. Mousley, J., & Perry, B. (2009). Developing mathematical concepts in Australian pre-school settings: The background. In R. Hunter, B. Bicknell, & T. Burgess (Eds.), Crossing divides: Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (Vol. 1). Palmerston North, NZ: MERGA. Papic, M., Mulligan, J., & Bobis, J. (2009). Developing mathematical concepts in Australian pre-school settings: Children’s mathematical thinking. In R.Hunter, B. Bicknell, & T. Burgess (Eds.), Crossing divides: Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (Vol. 1). Palmerston North, NZ: MERGA. Pound, L. (2006). Supporting mathematical development in the early years. (2nd ed.). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Jana Kokkinos is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She specialises in the learning and teaching of mathematics in relation to children from birth to eight years of age.


1. Catherine Attard - May 19, 2011

Great discussion, Jana. I think it’s also important to highlight the influence parents have on their children as they get older. Recent research has found that even in the upper primary and early secondary years parents have more influence over students than peers when it comes to academics. In my own research, I found this to be true and one thing in particular stood out. Parents who show negative attitudes towards mathematics have a significant influence on their children’s attitudes towards mathematics when the work begins to be more challenging and abstract, allowing some students to opt out simply because their parents ‘aren’t that good at maths’.

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