Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children


Early literacy tends to get a lot of attention. It’s easy to talk, read, or sing to young children.

But early math deserves equal time.

As we’ve blogged, early math pays off for children. And with some good advice, it’s not hard to play math games that help children build a strong foundation in math.

“Playing math games with children can be a fun, developmentally appropriate way to spark understanding of big mathematical ideas,” Kristen E. Reed and Jessica Mercer Young write in their article, “Play Games, Learn Math! Explore Numbers and Counting with Dot Card and Finger Games.”

“Math games also support children’s mathematical habits of mind—and key school readiness skills, such as problem solving, puzzling, and perseverance.”

Reed is a senior project director and mathematics educator at the Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit organization that works to improve the education, health, and economic opportunities. And Young is a research scientist and psychologist specializing in early learning at EDC. The article is the first in a series of articles on early math.

A dot card.

What math games can teachers and parents play? One answer is to use dot cards, cards that look like dominoes and represent different numbers with dots.

The article shares different dot card games that can be played with children of different ages. The goal isn’t just teaching kids to count. It’s also to get them to “subitize,” instantly seeing how many dots are on a card. Another skill is recognizing that numbers can be combined and pulled apart to make other numbers.

Similar math games can also be played just by using fingers.

“Learning math in preschool has long-term benefits for young children—particularly children from low-income families,” Reed told us. “But figuring out how to do that in a way that is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers can be hard for many teachers. We hope that our games can be a resource for them.”

Math games are also help children develop “mastery motivation,” the persistence it takes to master challenging tasks and activities.

In their article, “Mastery Motivation: Persistence and Problem Solving in Preschool,” Reed and Young write, “Problem solving is natural for preschoolers.”

“In our research, we’re finding that mastery motivation in preschool is related to the development of math knowledge. It’s important for teachers to know that this is a key school readiness skill,” Young explained to us.

The article adds, “Each challenge builds children’s skills in different areas of development: language, social and emotional, cognitive, and physical. But sometimes a problem can seem too challenging.”

That’s why it’s essential to provide challenging activities but add support, guidance, encouragement, and positive feedback that praises “the problem-solving process.”

In their article, Reed and Young also note:

“We know that children who are not provided with challenging activities or who receive negative or harsh feedback tend to show less mastery motivation. The same holds true for children receiving praise like ‘You’re so smart’ and children whose environment is overly controlling.

“When teachers appreciate children’s efforts, children learn that working hard and persisting are positive behaviors. As children grow, they will face more and more difficult problems. They need to know that it’s okay to struggle—it’s part of the learning process.”

“Sometimes adults want to jump in and help children when they see them struggling with a challenging task,” Young said. “But taking away that challenge also takes away something from the child’s learning process.”

Reed adds, “As preschool teachers may have seen in their own classrooms, not all children have the same inclination to persist when challenged. But that’s ok, because teachers can foster this mastery orientation.”

To learn more, check out Reed and Young’s PowerPoint presentation as well as their website, which has a number of early math resources.

There’s a lot for children and adults to learn. As Reed and Young write,“ When we watch and listen to how children play math games, we learn a lot about the mathematics they already know and what they’re ready to learn.”