What is the right age to start learning about math and science? You may be surprised to learn that your preschooler is ready to be introduced to more than mechanical repetition of counting and discussing the weather.
Recent research by the National Research Council, and National Institute for Early Education Research shows that there is a huge opportunity being missed when it comes to teaching math and science to 3- and 4-year-olds. Reports from both organizations indicate that expectations are greatly underestimated regarding the concepts preschoolers may be able to grasp.
“Kids are so excited by math and science. Let’s take advantage of it,” says Kimberly Brenneman, assistant research professor at NIEER and science consultant for the PBS television program “Sid the Science Kid.” “No one has told preschoolers that they have to be scared by it or that it’s hard.”
Brenneman says there has been a lasting payoff for early childhood education in other areas, like literacy, so the same possibility exists with other subjects.
“Parents, in their desire to do the right thing, can get wrapped up in math and science, but it doesn’t take fancy equipment (to do it),” says Brenneman. “Everything they need, they most likely have.”
Brenneman recommends being on the lookout for learning opportunities within existing situations like playing with blocks. When your child is playing, ask him or her why the blocks don’t fall over, or what is on top or under something else. Discuss which shapes work well for building. These activities help preschoolers learn about spatial relationships and physics.
Kitchen and cooking activities are ways to showcase transitions in phases. For example, demonstrate to the magic of a solid turning into a liquid. Take an ice cube out of the freezer and brainstorm about freezing and melting. Ask what can be done to make it melt, and what it would take to make it solid again? Or toast some bread and talk about what happened to the bread and if it can be “untoasted.” There is also a chance to talk about math concepts when measuring out ingredients to make cookies together, or deciding how many utensils are needed to set the table for arriving guests.
Brenneman reminds parents to have fun and get excited. She says not to worry about having every answer, but to explore and investigate together.
Sharing the language of math and science with your preschooler primes his or her mind for future explorations in kindergarten, and it shows that you have interest in two areas that are a vital part of his or her future.
Janine Boldrin is a New York writer, mother of three and a military spouse.