How I…Teach My Toddler Simple Math

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I raise my children the same way I was raised: by letting them develop their own personalities and interests.

As a parent, it’s my job to introduce as much as I can into their lives. We provide diverse experiences and activities, introduce different ideas and ways of doing things, and expose them to as many subject areas as possible. For most of the year, I’ve done a revolving schedule of reading, letters, numbers, science, history, and art with my son, one subject per day. Even though I love books and reading, I don’t spend our days just reading books with my kids. Even though my husband is a scientist, he doesn’t try to do experiments with them every weekend. Instead, we encourage diversity and are guided by their interests.

My son recently turned 4. He’s done a bit of traveling to other states, but most of his experiences have been across Southern California. His first word was the result of an obsession with an owl book. He loved an Irish singing group called Celtic Thunder. He’ll play on his keyboard and my harp every chance he gets. He loves baking and helping us cook. He enjoys building with blocks and playing in his kitchen. He’s curious about the world and enjoys nature from a distance (he’ll freak out if he gets a bit of dirt on his hands, so not quite sure how he’s going to survive the rest of his childhood).

But do you know what he really loves?

Science and math.

His father is thrilled. He has so many experiments in mind that sometimes I think he’s going to implode. I, on the other hand, am a little bewildered. Being at home means I have the time to explore science and math with him. But…I really suck at math and literature is more my forte.

All I can say is, thank goodness he’s only 4 and not doing scientific calculations!

But it does mean I’m teaching him addition and subtraction. Because he’s excited to learn it.

I think I have to “thank” the PBS show Peg + Cat for this. The whole show is based on math concepts and my son religiously watches it Monday-Friday right before naptime. He has been known to throw a fit if he misses it.

One day, right in the middle of the show, he turned to me and started asking me addition problems. Curious to see where he was going with this, I played along and started asking him simple addition problems. He figured it out within seconds, figured out subtraction five minutes later, and has been enjoying addition and subtraction for over a month now.

I’m not going to say he’s some math whiz, but he definitely surprises us all the time. I’m a little scared he’s going to be asking about multiplication and division any day now.

So, how do I teach my toddler simple math?

It’s really very simple!

  1. Visuals are key. Remember when you were a kid learning math? We had all those dreadful worksheets asking us to color the apples one color and the oranges another color and then to add the apples and oranges together. Basically, it’s counting. But it’s how young children learn to add and subtract. I usually use my fingers for answers between 0 and 10 and his toys or other objects for greater numbers.
  2. Show the problem in motion. If your problem is 2+2, then set out 2 items and say “2.” Then say the “plus 2” and put 2 additional objects in a separate, but close, pile. That way your child hears the problem, sees the problem, can start to understand how it works, and can then count and provide an answer.
  3. Be patient. Kids can be slow counters and may need to see and hear the problem more than once. It may be tempting to constantly shuffle things around and encourage them to count, but their processing speed, just like an adult’s, is not always whip fast. If your child looks confused, present it again, a bit slower. If they’re just not paying attention, stop and wait for another opportunity. Remember, a 4 year old does not need to know how to add and subtract! (Hear that, my child?!)
  4. Make it fun! As with everything with kids, make it fun. Do addition with candy and let them eat it. Do it with toys and then play with them. But, most of all, if they have no interest, don’t push it. My son enjoys math, but he doesn’t want to have to do it all day every day.

I constantly call my son a little weirdo. He’s unlike a lot of toddlers his age that we know, hates getting dirty, actually listens to me at home and in public, is consistently polite, and is well-behaved in public. And now I can add budding mathematician. Seriously, where did this child come from?

Well, his dad recently informed me he wants phonics videos when he’s being put to bed (daddy handles his bedtime), so I guess we’ll be starting reading soon, too.

Perhaps it’s because we never stressed academics that he’s interested in doing math and reading at an age where he should be focused on playing and getting muddy. Or maybe it’s just his curious mind. Either way, he constantly surprises us.

19 Comments

  • OneLife

    Must say you got a little genius back there 🙂 . It is actually the freedom to choose what he wants rather than being imposed upon that draws him towards the complicated stuff (that’s what we think it to be… lol). I am glad you guys are taking up the responsibility of being parents very impressively and patiently. This one does bring a wide grin on my face visualizing the little one pestering you with multiplication and division problems in the near future 😛 .

    • kat

      He is quite a surprising child and I like to think as you do, that he gravitated towards it because we don’t push him. Though I prefer he plays in dirt, perhaps he’ll be a math whiz and discover the secrets of the universe. Either way, I just see it as my job to support him and encourage, though I’m abysmal at math and multiplication makes me anxious, so not looking forward to those questions yet!

    • kat

      Thanks! I think that’s the important part of learning: making it fun. It’s also fascinating to watch how their interests develop and the threads they follow.

  • thecornucopiaallotment

    I teach my children through setting seeds, Baking and crafts. I have a selection of puzzles and blocks which are an array of colours and shapes and our wooden train set which has been loved by both my boys and girls. When they are older we use educational workbooks to prepare them for school and I pad apps like Edu-kids which improves hand-eye co-ordination and provides wonderful apps for them to focus their new found skills! You sound like you are lucky enough to have a child where learning comes naturally, that is a blessing!

    • kat

      Thank you! I hope that by making learning fun and using their natural interests they can enjoy being educated. My parents had us doing workbooks, too, and I loved it! I love that you use a variety of activities with your kids and, as my son very much enjoyed his tablet, I’ll be looking into the Edu kids app. Thanks!

  • Stemium

    It’s amazing how they can be so unique at that age! The real world, applied activities always seem to stick so well in their minds. And of course the fun games. Our youngest also avoids dirt and has really gotten into learning to read (I think in pet to keep up with his sibs). Very fun!

  • dolphinwrite

    kat, I’m so glad to meet you. As one who worked many jobs, including summer camp early in my teaching career, I realized early on that the only limitations placed on kids is mistaken belief and the inability to see beyond certain traditions, or what we believe are traditions. I don’t think Abraham Lincoln allowed roadblocks. And what about Thomas Edison and so many others? They saw, they believed, and they pursued.
    By the way, he’s not much younger than when I taught my nephew multiplication. The concept isn’t difficult. You can make a small table, say only up to 4s or 5s. I simply told my nephew that multiplication is easier addition. He added single digits. I said multiplying 3 x 4 is simply adding three fours. He got it, right away. He would see 3 x 4, or 2 x4 and simply add three fours or two fours in his head. We’d get to memorization later, but the concept was understood. It’s all in how it’s shown.

    • kat

      Absolutely! I believe in teaching my kids whatever they want to learn whenever they and their brains are ready for it. Some are ready earlier and others later, but we all learn the same things so I don’t always understand this societal pressure to teach things at particular times.
      Your trick with multiplication will probably work with my son, too, and he has a fabulous memory, so he’s likely to catch on quickly. I’m the one who panics when it comes to math, so I’m happy just waiting for him to express an interest.

  • dolphinwrite

    kat, your so thoughtful. We need more people like you. As a teacher, I saw great benefit in introducing concepts before we got to them regularly. That way, when we got there, their brains had some time to cogetate (if that’s a word), and it would be easier. Sometimes it’s what the brain is doing while we’re not looking.

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