Math in the Mail Delivers Fun Foundational Math to Homes of Three-Year-Olds
Math in the Mail brings ideas for exploring mathematical thinking to children’s homes throughout Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region while building equity and math learning ecologies along the way.
“It all started on a paper napkin …” is how the story of Math in the Mail is always told. The superintendents of two intermediate school districts in the Great Lakes Bay Region of Michigan were talking one day about how Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, which regularly sends books to young children’s homes, has had such a positive impact on early literacy. They wondered about the potential gains that could be made by a similar program to build early math skills. They literally sketched their vision out on a napkin whereby math kits would be sent to children’s homes. Without precedent, the idea took off, and leaders in instruction and early childhood education from the eight counties in the region joined together to write a grant proposal. The Dow Corning Foundation provided funding and Math in the Mail was born.
What Is Math in the Mail?
Math in the Mail kits are designed to develop mathematical skills in three-year-olds by providing the tools that parents, guardians, and other caregivers need to build positive family relationships around math learning. Research has shown that young children are eager and developmentally ready to build their foundation of math skills in the earliest years of life. However, parents want ideas for how to help their children build those foundational math skills, and are often impeded by their own negative experiences with math. Math in the Mail kits provide the materials and information necessary to make math fun and accessible—for both children and their parents. Each kit includes:
- Materials designed for hands-on play.
- Ideas for activities with the provided materials and extension activities using items found in any home, as well as a description of how these activities help children learn.
- A storybook that corresponds to the kit’s main topic that parents and children can enjoy together.
Families can also follow Math in the Mail on social media to gain information and ideas that will help them strengthen their children’s preschool math skills.
It’s About Equity
A big impetus for this program is our focus on equity. Young children from low-income homes lag behind their peers from middle-income homes in the early mathematical skills that lay the foundation for later mathematics achievement. The goal of Math in the Mail is to reach those families who will benefit from the materials most and have the least financial resources available. For this reason, children who meet economic eligibility requirements receive six kits in the mail over the course of a year. Currently serving Michigan children from Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland, and Saginaw counties, Math in the Mail kits have reached over 1,700 families from low-income homes to date. All families, however, can benefit from these kits, so we have also made them available via subscription to those who live outside the economic parameters and our region.
Building Learning Pathways Across Settings
Math in the Mail is a great example of a community joining together to support family engagement in children’s learning. The partnerships we have with organizations in the Great Lakes Bay Region—many of which participate in the region’s Out-of-School Time Network and the Great Lakes Bay Regional STEM Initiative—support and enhance our work in a variety of ways. For example, museums, libraries, and early childhood programs all help us get the word out about the work we do, and help us recruit families into the program by sharing our information with those who visit their spaces. Also, a variety of groups—like the Girl Scouts, parks and recreation departments, and local businesses—partner with us around our math kits, a win-win for everyone. It allows the organizations to place supplemental materials like flyers and other resources in the boxes, which gets them visibility. At the same time, families discover educational resources in their own community, such as parks and museums, that they might not have visited otherwise.
Lessons Learned and Future Directions
Our team has learned a variety of lessons over the past two years and offers the following suggestions to districts and programs interested in developing similar services:
Think of everyone as a partner. One of the main reasons our work has been so successful so far is our expansive collaborations with a variety of institutions throughout the learning ecology. We suggest forming partnerships with everyone in the community to do this work. Math learning takes place everywhere, all the time, so the possibilities for partnership are infinite!
Think about data to learn and improve. Data are a critical part of helping us improve our kits and understand the influence we are having on children and families. Families who participate in Math in the Mail are asked to complete a pre-kit survey, which asks them for a variety of information, including whether children are able to count, create patterns, understand part-whole relationships, and parents’ feelings about mathematics (see Sample Pre-Kit Survey Questions below).
For children enrolled in Head Start and the Great Start Readiness Preschool Program, we are also able to look at their assessment data. Preliminary analyses from an outside evaluation found that there was a statistically significant improvement in foundational math skills for children who participated in the first year of implementation.[i] Families are also asked to complete post-kit surveys so that we can understand which activities families do and enjoy the most (for example, see the post-kit survey for the Crayola Patterns Book kit here). Overall, we’ve learned that everyone gets excited when a package arrives in the mail with their name on it. “I love seeing my kids explode with excitement when our Math in the Mail arrives!” said a parent whose son received Math in the Mail during its first year. “It has gotten them very excited about math.”
As Math in the Mail begins its third year, program leaders are excited to be having conversations with institutions interested in becoming a research partner for Math in the Mail. As interest from various areas of the country grows, we are also considering expansion of the program.
Utilize mathematics knowledge and expertise in the community. Math in the Mail has also been successful because we’ve drawn on the immense mathematical knowledge from our partners and math educators from across the region. We have formed a program Content Quality Committee, whose members generously share their expertise in areas such as early childhood education and mathematics to help make the design of the kits as impactful as possible. Likewise, the Math in the Mail Advisory Committee, comprising stakeholders from each of the eight counties served, convenes four times each year to advise on the vision and direction of the program.
Sample Pre-Kit Survey Questions:
Survey items were developed by Math in the Mail based on the Teaching Strategies GOLD ongoing observational system for assessing children’s progress. For the full survey visit: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScXGGODUXsbKIpjK0Gz9nA231AEqqbGddNjvHMGVo9vC6HA4g/viewform
Example Math in the Mail Kits:
The “1,2,3 to the Zoo” kit focuses on counting skills. The main partner for this kit was the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan, as girl scout Isabel Kuntz designed the kit for her Silver Award. The other partner for this kit was the Saginaw Children’s Zoo. The kit resource page can be found here.
The “Anno’s Counting Book” kit focuses on quantifying skills. The main partner for this kit was the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan, as girl scout Paige Terry designed the kit for her Silver Award. Additional partners for this kit were the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum and the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History. The kit resource page can be found here.
The “Ten on the Sled” kit focuses on helping children learn how to connect numerals with their quantities. The community partners for this kit were Saginaw County Parks and Recreation Commission and the Bay County Historical Society in conjunction with the Bay-Arenac Counties Great Start Collaborative. As part of their partnership, the Bay City State Recreation Area (Department of Natural Resources) integrated Math in the Mail into one of its programs, Growing Up Wild, and made it available for families who visit the recreation area. The kit resource page can be found here.
The “Albert’s Amazing Snail” kit focuses on understanding shapes and spatial relationships. The partners for this kit were the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum, the Midland Center for the Arts, and Musico Lessons. The kit resource page can be found here.
The “A Mousy Mess” kit focuses on sorting, comparing, and measuring skills. The partner for this kit was the Careers in Education class from the Saginaw Career Complex. The students took the lead on the design of the kit, and worked on every aspect, from choosing the manipulatives to creating activities to assembling the kits. The kit resource page can be found here.
The “Crayola Patterns Book” kit focuses on helping children recognize and work with patterns. The partners for this kit were the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum, the Midland Center for the Arts, and Musico Lessons. The kit resource page can be found here.
[i] Tackett, W. L., Everett, K., & Smith, C. (2018). Math in the Mail: Annual evaluation report. Unpublished report. Michigan: iEval.
You can also learn more about Math in the Mail by watching this EdTalk about Math in the Mail from the 2017 MASA Midwinter Conference, presented by Dr. Kathy Stewart, superintendent of Saginaw Intermediate School District.
Lindsay Bryce is passionate about doing what is right for children and has always kept that in the forefront of her work. She began her career running an afterschool program and transitioned into early childhood education 10 years ago. As the community education director for the Carrollton Schools in Michigan, she gained experience not only in early childhood education but also in community building, and advertising and marketing for the district. She is now using this combination of experience to build the Math in the Mail program for children and families in the eight counties making up the Great Lakes Bay Region of Michigan.