One of the most exciting trends in public libraries is how families and children are engaging together in playful early learning. Much of this has been influenced by Every Child Ready to Read, a program that guides families in children’s early literacy by talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing.  There is less attention paid, however, to how libraries and families can support early math. This is unfortunate, given that early math skills are highly predictive of later academic success, even more so than reading abilities or socio-emotional development. Like literacy, math is a tool, and one that can be developed and honed early in life.
Building on the success of Every Child Ready to Read, below we offer six ideas for how librarians and families can talk, sing, read, write, and play with math. Libraries are in a perfect position to promote family math, as they increasingly offer opportunities for families to tinker with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); offer a wide range of digital media resources—many with a math focus; and are trusted places where families of young children congregate for story times and other activities.
The ideas we offer are curated from those generated during a recent meeting of family-math funders, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, as well as from a review of various research-based early-mathematics websites (see Resources for Family Math). They are not intended to encompass the full range of ways that families and librarians can support early math, but to provide an entry point to important research-based mathematical concepts. Although we focus on librarians, these practices can also be adopted by early-childhood educators in a variety of home-, center-, and community-based settings.
Librarians and families can talk, sing, read, and write about and play together with:
Numbers: Children are born with an ability to understand numbers. With the support of families and other adults over time, they develop number concepts, including one-to-one correspondence (the idea that only one number relates to only one object) as well as cardinality (the idea that the last number word in the count represents the amount of the set). Families and other adults can help children develop these concepts in a variety of ways. For example, families can talk about numbers, count, and even sing number songs. The National Association for the Education of Young Children suggests a number of fun math songs and activities, including “Fingers, fingers, 1, 2, 3.” Families can also read books about number concepts. The book Banana for Two/Banana para dos by Ellen Mayer highlights actions that help children develop a stronger understanding of numbers and how math is part of our lives.
Patterns: Patterns are everywhere, and understanding them is the precursor to algebraic thinking. Patterns can be visual (like beads on a string), auditory (such as the repetition of one slow note and then two quick ones), or physical (for example, jumping two times then clapping). Families and librarians can talk about patterns they see, sing songs with a catchy beat, and read stories and poetry with a repeating rhythm. Talking about and creating pattern trains with everyday objects or pattern blocks is an enjoyable game families can play while shopping in the grocery store, biding time at the laundromat, or even waiting at the doctor’s office.
Shapes: Nearly everything that children see has a shape. Children encounter shapes as two-dimensional circles, triangles, and rectangles as well as three-dimensional solids like balls, cans, and boxes. Families and other adults can help children understand that shapes can be defined and classified according to their attributes (for example, number of sides, angles), that shapes can be combined and separated to make new shapes, and that the sides of solids look like common two-dimensional shapes, such as rectangles and triangles. Creating opportunities for families and children to play with and explore objects like magnet blocks, puzzles, Legos, and tangrams is a great way to help foster this knowledge (as well as spatial thinking, see below). By laying out these materials, and posting simple questions for parents to ask their children while playing with them, librarians can further promote and encourage these skills.
Space: Children think about themselves and objects in space when they follow directions to put things together, to consider themselves in relation to others and objects, and look at maps and diagrams. Spatial thinking involves using and understanding vocabulary, such as above, below, inside, around, on top of, between, and next to, and might be one of the most important ways to boost understanding of numbers and operations. Before story time, librarians can sing songs about who is to the left and right of each child, and have children take turns standing up and down. First 8 Studios at WGBH has put together a set of hands-on and digital activities that families and children can enjoy together and that have been shown to increase children’s knowledge about spatial thinking. Children and families can also go to the park or walk around their neighborhood with a paper and pencil and describe, draw, and describe what they see.
Comparisons: Amount and measurement matter to children. How else would they know they need more cookies or want the swing to go higher and higher? Children quickly learn that adding makes more and longer and taking away makes less and shorter. These are the precursors to children using mathematics to solve problems in their daily lives. Families, librarians, and early-childhood educators can not only talk, sing, and read about quantity as they occur in children’s daily lives, but they can also have children use fingers, arms, and legs to measure objects, and set up environments for comparisons and mathematical operations to take place.
Positive Attitude:Perhaps more than anything else, families can talk positively about math and motivate and encourage children to be excited about it. Saying things like “I like math” or “Let’s use math to figure it out” can go a long way to helping children feel confident in their math abilities from the outset. The program Bedtime Math has been found to help reduce math anxiety in families and children. And going to science and math-focused museums is another fun opportunity to see math in new and creative ways.
You can read more about GFRP’s work in family math by clicking here. And share with us how math is being integrated into programs at your local library by filling out this quick form on our Living Ideabook! To learn more about additional ways librarians are supporting family math and early STEM you can also visit: Math and Science Storytime and STAR_Net.
Resources for Family Math
The Development and Research in Early Math Education (DREME) Network offers a variety of publications and resources to help prospective and practicing teachers of young children develop learning opportunities that are intentional, developmentally appropriate, engaging, and playful.
Education Development Center offers fun math games to enhance young children’s mathematics learning and persistence.
The Erikson Early Math Collaborative is a source for information on foundational mathematics—what it is, how it develops in children, and how best to teach it.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s report STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood features research to help lead to a greater understanding of investing in STEM learning in the early years.
Math at Home is a website designed to help educators and families foster the development of early math skills in children from birth to age five.
National Association for the Education of Young Children provides ideas for playful math learning at school and home.
TERC has developed a variety of games, projects, and activities that help mix math into daily activities.
Zeno Math offers math training to communities and an online toolbox for educators and families, with a wide variety of math-related activities and games.
 Neuman, S., Moland, N., & Celano, D. (2017). “Bringing Literacy Home: An Evaluation of the Every Child Ready to Read Program.” http://everychildreadytoread.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2017-ECRR-Report-Final.pdf
 Platas, L. M. (2012). “Why Early Math Matters.” Retrieved from: http://www.tkcalifornia.org/resource-library/resources/files/why-math-matters.pdf
Weiss, H. B., Caspe, M., Lopez, M. E., & McWilliams, L. (2016). IDEABOOK: Libraries for Families. Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from https://globalfrp.org/Articles/Libraries-for-the-21st-Century-It-s-A-Family-Thing