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Developing Math Talent in Very Young Kids

Gifted Education and Support

This Tips for Parents article authored by Julia Brodsky is from a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families. She discusses his experiences in teaching a math circle to young (4- 9 year old) students and helping to develop their interests in the subject.

Preschool children

Some of the fun math activities for pre-schoolers are various board games, such as Think Fun games, checkers, Mancala, Blokus, dominoes, etc. They teach logic and strategy, as well as build the number sense. There are many good online activities, such as Virtual Manipulatives and logic games ( such as Zoombini) that kids love. Math Trek activities – “scavenger hunt for math” is a great family/group activity, too, giving the children an opportunity to find math around them. It is important to discuss deep concepts with the children early, even though they still lack the formal tools. Children are both capable and interested in such topics as infinity, nature of time and space, history of numbers, etc. These discussions help to provoke and maintain their interest. Math is not linear, though it is sometimes presented as linear for the purposes of formal schooling. It is fine to start at any point, and follow your child’s lead. Pointing out math in non-math activities ( music, art, dance, science) helps the children to see the big picture, connect multiple domains and develop analogies that will serve them well later in problem solving.

It is extremely important to teach multiple approaches to the problem from the very beginning. Even a very young child can compare and contrast different ways of solving a problem, thus developing an important thinking habit for future studies. Verbalization of solutions usually falls behind the ability to actually solve a problem. One of many possible ways to develop this ability is to ask a child to solve a similar but different problem and point out the differences. It is also important to model your thinking process (think out loud) and demonstrate how you make mistakes, and how you realize what they are.

School-age children

While teaching from simple to complex is a time-proven way to teach a skill, it does not work this way to ignite an interest. A complex robot is more intriguing than a simple bolt. Many parents notice that while their gifted children are eager to explore new concepts, they are reluctant to learn routine tools, such as multiplication table. In many cases, this is caused by the way the tools are presented. They are given to a child, instead of being discovered by a child. They are also mostly presented as an isolated piece, lacking in meaning and depth. While it is much easier for a school educator to present the material in such a way to save time, in order to cover the required material, this approach is the main reason for interest dry-up in students.

While many parents recognize the need for free exploration and problem solving, some are concerned about possible holes in learning. These worries are usually based on external limitations – the necessity to follow the school curriculum, pass SAT and other tests, and successfully participate in math contests (which, in turn, also follow school curriculum). In this case, it is important that the child understands both the reason and an existing timeframe to learn this or that piece, and accepts it as his/her own responsibility.

In many cases, children are greatly motivated by joining a community of like-minded children. A math circle, math club or math contest prep group can help your child to develop intellectually stimulating friendships, acquire sophisticated math debate skills, and inspire him/her to probe more deeply into the field.

Parents often wonder whether to interfere or not if a child is stuck with the problem, and feel a natural inclination to give a child a hand. However, being “stuck” is vital in developing solid problem solving skills. The feeling of being “stuck” activates the contemplating and inventive part of our brain. You may help your child by asking where exactly he/she is stuck; whether there may be alternative ways of solving the problem; whether the problem may be reduced to a simpler one; suggest finding an analogy in another domain; generalize; estimate; build a model or draw a diagram; check for hidden assumptions; explain a problem to a younger child; etc. It is important to teach a child how to relax while being stuck, and how to develop an alternative way of attack. Modeling “being stuck” by a parent or a teacher is also a great way to help a child to relax and see the process as a natural one.

It is crucial to create a warm, supportive and playful environment for problem solving. Your child should feel at ease in order to fully dive into a problem and to associate hard intellectual work with pleasant feelings later on. A respectful and constructive feedback loop by a teacher or parent is essential in early years.

Support for parents

There are many parents who are concerned about math development of their children, and would like to connect with a community of like –minded parents. Consider joining an online community for informal math education, where you can share your concerns and ask questions, such as:

More information on early math education can be found at Wikipedia:

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