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Easy Ways to Teach Math Basics to Young Children

Updated on July 17, 2014

Why Get a Jump Start on Math?

Like reading, math is an essential life skill your child needs to learn in order to find success in whatever field of interest they decide to pursue later in life. Building a child's confidence in their own abilities at an early age reinforces the saying "you can do anything you set your mind to". If your child has confidence in the basics, it will serve as a sturdy platform for more advanced concepts.

Where to Start

You may think teaching math concepts to a 3 or 4 year old would be an impossible feat. However, my four year old can count to 30, add and subtract, tell time, understand simple fractions, understand simple graphs, count money, count by 5's, 10's and 100's, and write numbers 1-10 in their proper order. The key to a young child's understanding of these basic math concepts is to provide them with visual manipulatives.

As adults, we have memorized simple addition and subtraction problems and monetary values. Something that makes perfect logical sense to us is a mindboggling perplexion to a child. Even if a particularly talented young child could memorize these things, they would not be in total understanding of, for example, two plus two, unless they saw in physical form, two items added with two more items to make four items total. Having physical items to visualize is the clearest way for your child to grasp how addition and subtraction works.

Just about anything can become a math tool. Toys, blocks, shapes, stuffed animals, you name it. The first thing your child should be able to do is count. It can be 1-5, 1-10, 1-20, whatever they are comfortable with. Repetition is how they will learn it. Count the numbers 1-5 out loud and ask your child to do the same. After they are able to say the numbers 1-5 on their own in the proper order, you can use your fingers or toys to let them see 1-5 visually.

Once your child can count, preferably from 1 to 10, you can move on to sequence recognition, adding, and subtraction.

Sequence Recognition

This is simply your child's ability to recognize the proper order of numbers. An example work sheet (which can be made at home on notebook or printer paper, or even typed on a computer screen), is as follows:

1 __ 3 __ 5 6 7 8 __ 10

If your child can write their numbers, they can fill in the blanks themselves. If not, they can answer verbally and you can pencil in their answer for them to see.

Addition & Subtraction

This can be simplified by the use of manipulatives. First, make sure you have some blocks, marshmallows, or some other manipulatives nearby. Make a simple addition problem, using numbers your child recognizes, for example, 1+2=__. Show the problem to your child and ask them what number comes first in the problem (1). Ask them to place one manipulative in front of them, then explain that the plus sign means you are going to add something to the number 1. Next ask them what number comes next (2). Ask them to get two manipulatives from their stash and place them near the first one. Then ask them to count all the manipulatives they placed in front of them to get the answer (3). Then say "that's right, 1+2=3".

The same method can be used for subtraction. For the problem 2-1=__, ask your child to look at the first number and put that many manipulatives in front of them (2). Next explain that the minus sign means you are going to take something away. Show them the number one and explain that that's how many things will be taken away. Ask them to take away one of the manipulatives in front of them and then count how many are left (1). Then say 'that's right, 2-1=1".

If your child can write the answer, let them fill in the blank. If not, fill it in for them to see.

Once your child understands addition and subtraction, and is able to come up with the answers on their own, the problems can become more complex, for example: 1+3+2+5=___ and 10-5-2=___. The same method can be used to find an answer with manipulatives.

Telling Time

You will need lots of clock templates or you can just draw some. A solo cup or small round bowl makes a great circle template. Number the clock 1-12 if you are drawing your own, and add a dot in the center of the clock where the arms will come from. Next write out a time, for example, 10:00, next the the clock face. Point to 10:00 and ask your child what number comes first (10). Explain that ten will be where the small arm of the clock will point and that the small arm comes first. If your child can draw a line, let them draw a line from the small center dot to the number ten on the clock template. Next, explain that the two zeros mean "o'clock", and that the big hand of the clock is the second line to be drawn on the template. Depending on your child's ability, the explanation of the two zeros can be as simple as "when the big hand points to 12, it means 00", or you can explain counting by fives or tens all around the clock to show that 12 starts at 0 and ends at 60. Once your child masters :00, move on to :30, :45, and :15 if your child is ready. To save you time and paper, you could purchase a sturdy clock template with movable arms.

If your child is able to write their numbers, another way to teach is to draw the hands on the clock and ask your child to write what time it is.

Simple Fractions

This can be done using shapes drawn on paper or matching manipulative shapes. Draw or place a shape on a flat surface. Tell your child that they are looking at the whole shape. Draw a line through the written shape or split the manipulative into two to show that each 1/2 makes the whole. After the child understands this, the shapes can become split into more pieces, for example, 6 parts. Ask them to show how many parts make up 1/6, 3/6, etc.

Simple Graphs

This is another thing that can be drawn up. If it's easier, print out a free graph worksheet online. Assist your child in finding the answer, for example, to how many fruits (or insert pretend objects of your choice here) are in bar A. A ruler may assist them in following the correct line over to the correct answer.

Money, Counting by 5's and 10's

Using change, and beginning with a penny, show your child that one penny equals 1 cent. Ask them how many pennies make 10 cents. They can draw 10 pennies or count out 10 real pennies to get their answer. Do the same with nickels, dimes, and lastly quarters. As they learn the value of nickels and dimes, they must count by 5's and 10's. While learning the value of quarters, they will understand how four quarters make a dollar. This may take a little time, but consistent practice and playing games like pet shop and grocery store will help your child to learn.

Ones, Tens, Hundreds

The value placement of three digit numbers can be shown, starting from right to left. This can be taught by writing a three digit number, for example, the number 132. Individually underline each of the three numbers and show your child which value each number is in (2 is in the ones column, 3 is in the tens column, and 1 is in the hundreds column). Correct number placement can also be shown with base ten manipulatives. A 100 block cube, three 10 block cube columns, and two single blocks can be shown (and even counted) for more visual learners.

Writing Numbers, Additional Learning

After your child has mastered these skills, they can practice their writing skills and move on to additional numbers, for example 11-20. Advanced addition and subtraction are other skills to learn if your child is ready. Start with simple advanced addition, such as 10 + 10 and 11 + 11 before moving on to subtraction and before trying to explain borrowing and carrying over.

With some perseverance and consistency from you, your child will begin to grasp simple math concepts like these and be able to easily progress to more advanced ideas.

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