Psychologist and development expert Susan Levine shares research-based strategies to foster math skills among two- to four-year-olds.


Playing with puzzles develops spatial skills that could improve children's math abilities, researchers at the University of Chicago have found.

"The children who played with puzzles performed better than those who did not on tasks that assessed their ability to rotate and translate shapes," said Susan Levine, a math development expert and the lead author of the study, which was the first to test this predictor for scientific achievement in a naturalistic setting.

This week on Professional Help, Levine collaborates with her graduate student Elizabeth Gunderson and shares tips from her recent work in Developmental Science on how parents can prepare their preschoolers for math excellence. Turns out, Tetris isn't such a waste of time after all.

Talk about numbers. Parents are typically and rightfully very proud when their children count to 10. However, most two-year-olds don't know that the count words refer to particular set sizes. When asked to put three plastic fish into a cup, for example, they would typically just put a handful of fish even though they know the count list. To help your child gain this important understanding, try counting and referring to objects that are real or depicted in books rather than just reciting the count list. Also, combine counting with saying how many things there are (PDF). It's better to count a set of cookies and announce the total number present, "1, 2, 3, we have 3 cookies," than to just say, "1, 2, 3" or "We have three cookies." Finally, children also learn from talk about somewhat larger sets containing 4 to 10 objects.

Talk about spatial relations. Spatial thinking -- being able to mentally create and manipulate visual representations of objects and locations -- is important for math achievement, and is very malleable in young children. When your child is drawing, you could say, "The blue pencil is longer than the red pencil" or ask, "Who is taller, you or your brother?" Introduce shapes and spatial features, such as edges, curves, and parallel lines, as well. You could say, "This is a triangle, it has three sides, 1, 2, 3," pointing to each in turn as it is counted so that, by linking numbers and shapes in your talk, he or she begins to grasp the defining features of geometric shapes.

Talk about math with your hands. Using gestures during "math talk" promotes children's numerical and spatial skills. For instance, pointing while counting helps them associate a number to each object and monitor which objects have already been counted. To help your kid attend to spatial relationships, point when you say, "This dog is bigger than that dog." Moreover, sliding the edge of your hand up and down over an edge piece of a jigsaw puzzle can help him understand what you mean when you suggest finding a piece with a "straight edge."

Engage your child in spatial play. Playing with blocks and puzzles helps develop children's spatial thinking and, consequently, math skills. With puzzles, they learn to predict whether a piece will fit and then get instant feedback when they try to insert the piece into a particular location. This experience predicts children's later ability to imagine the results of spatial transformations, such as rotations. Playing videogames like Tetris can also foster children's spatial thinking.

Engage your child in number play. Play numerical board games like Chutes and Ladders, in which you roll a die or spin a spinner and then move your piece a certain number of spaces along a linear path. This kind of game is especially helpful when you encourage your kid to "count on" from the space he is on. That is, if he's on space five and spins a two, it is more helpful to count "6, 7" rather than "1, 2." These games can also help teach Arabic numerals, numerical ordering (e.g., "Which is more, 3 or 6?"), and the number line.

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