This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
Literacy is an essential life skill. Not being able to read or write means missing out on a large part of life and being cut off from vital information. Most people would be embarrassed about being illiterate. However, It’s not the same with innumeracy.
“I’m terrible at math,” we admit cheerfully. “I’ve just got no head for numbers,” we say, smiling fondly about our endearing little deficiency.
Yet, math literacy (and the logic and reason that math cultivates) is just as crucial a skill as reading or writing, and the consequences of not having it are just as catastrophic – both for the individual and for the country. Innumerates are more likely to be scammed, taken in by godmen and misled by politicians – even if they are politicians themselves. They invest money in dubious schemes, vote for measures contrary to their own interests and believe they are more likely to die in a terrorist attack than a car accident (and hence vote to build walls rather than mandate highway safety).
Helping children understand mathematics, therefore, is every bit as important as teaching them to read and write. In India, as in most countries, we are failing miserably on this count. The most recent ASER study revealed that more than half of 12- 14-year-olds cannot do even simple division.
So what can we do? How can we make math easy, accessible and fun for children? How can we make them comfortable with patterns, sequence and order? How can we help them navigate the world of numbers without getting overwhelmed or bogged down?
It’s simple. We all use math all the time. We just need to become aware of it. Every single morning, for example, we get dressed for the day. We put one sock on one foot. We don’t violate this rule. We never put both feet into one sock, do we?
This is a mathematical rule: it’s called one-to-one correspondence and it’s the basis of the much more complex math that governs the stock market, the economy and our taxation laws.
When we are aware of the many ordinary math applications we engage in every day, we can begin pointing them out to our children and give them more opportunities to practice math in concrete ways.
Math readiness is a prerequisite for math mastery and children should enter school with an appreciation for the world of numbers because they’ve been playing with them for years already.
Count real things
I’ve lost track of how many children I know in India who can recite their multiplication tables like pros but cannot tell me how many wheels there are on eight bicycles. Counting should be meaningful. Like walking and talking, math concepts come in stages. Children will be able to count more things as they get older and as their brains develop.
A three-year-old doesn’t have the concept of ten, so don’t kid yourself that she “knows her numbers” just because she can recite them in order. By encouraging your child to count meaningfully, you are laying the foundation for all that will come later. Have her count how many potatoes are in the basket or how many katoris are on the table. Having her touch the objects as she counts them makes the process more concrete.
Connect numbers with quantities
Every chance you get, give your child practice in matching numbers to the quantities they represent. Ask him to bring you three spoons or two cups. Ask for one biscuit. When he gives it to you, say “OOOPS! You brought one, but I really want two! Can you bring one more?” Hold up your fingers and ask how many he sees. Ask him how many eyes he has.
Introduce math words
More, less, half, quarter, a lot, a few – these are all important concepts in mathematics and children need to understand them concretely. Use these terms deliberately in everyday life and help your child notice the differences.
When serving him dal, ask if he wants a whole katori or a half. Is his glass full or empty? Ask him to put this packet of rice on the shelf that has the most room. Allow your child to help in the kitchen and to measure and pour ingredients. Effortlessly, children learn about fractions, division, time and temperature. Cooking is one of the most rewarding math activities there is – it’s fun, purposeful and ends with something good to eat.
Sizes, sets, volume, quantity
The ways we can introduce math concepts and language at home are unlimited. While folding laundry, we can ask the child to make sets: all the socks together, all the blues, all the big shirts, all the small shirts. Keeping leftovers in the fridge, we can ask her to guess which container will hold the sabzi – is this one big enough or is it too small? Looking at photographs of the cousins, we can ask her who is the tallest? Who is the smallest? Keeping a growth chart by marking family members’ height on a doorway is a fun way for children to learn measuring and variation.
Keep it light and don’t get hassled when your child makes mistakes. Even when the right answer is totally obvious to you, your child may not yet have reached the stage of development required to understand a particular concept. If you find her getting frustrated or anxious, change the questions or the activity and come back to it in a few months. She’ll be ready then.
Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.