I have had several conversations with relatively new parents in which the question of how/whether to talk math with babies.
I always try to help such parents see math like they see reading. You read with your baby long before she knows what your words mean. An important reason to do so is to immerse the child in language. This is how she will learn language. Reading books increases the variety and quality of language the child is exposed to.
It’s the same with math. We can surround our children with number and shape long before they understand what these things mean. It is through this exposure that they learn.
For parents of children of all ages, this principle applies. Don’t worry about whether the child can get right answers; make a conscious effort to notice number and shape in your world together. It is through this exposure that they will learn.
To this end, Tabitha and I have been playing with the scales at the grocery store. Not the ones at the checkout; the ones in the produce department.
The other day we found a rather large onion.
Here she is holding the onion safely back at home.
Me: What do you think this weighs?
Tabitha (8 years old): Four pounds.
Me: Hmmm…I say a pound and a half.
T: Half a pound!
She is easily influenced. We put it on the scale. It’s a pound and a quarter. I celebrate my victory briefly.
Then Tabitha notices the bananas are nearby. There are several individual bananas lying loose. She grabs one and begins to put it on the scale.
Me: Wait! Not yet! Let’s guess what it weighs.
T: With the onion…two pounds.
We add it in and see that now it’s very close to one and a half pounds.
Pretty soon we are weighing bananas by the bunch and guessing whether an avocado is heavier than a banana.
We are surrounding ourselves with numbers and having a grand old time.
So What Do We Learn?
Immersing your child in numbers is low stakes and opportunities are everywhere. We grocery shop every week, but have only recently started playing with the scales. As a general principle, anytime you encounter a number in the company of your children, you can talk about it.
When the children are infants, they won’t participate. That’s OK. They’ll learn that numbers are things to talk about.
When the children are older, they’ll make wildly inaccurate guesses. That’s OK. They’re getting practice talking about numbers.
When the children are even older, they’ll start to turn their wildly inaccurate guesses into serious learning.
Along the way, they’ll initiate the conversations themselves because you will have taught them that numbers are things people talk about.