Once you have begun to tell your young child that she may have just one candy, you have launched her on her math journey. Eventually, you will introduce her to bigger numbers by asking her to place three or four spoons on the dinner table, to use five colored pencils for her drawing, or to invite ten friends to her birthday party.
So the journey has begun. But will it be interesting, challenging and rewarding, or troubling and frustrating? The answer depends on how you organize the ride.
We as parents can often recall our own success stories in ballet, sports, and music, all of which began with an early start in training. A young age–between 0 and 6–is the period of most intense and easy learning your child will ever have. During this time, your child’s brain is the most malleable, readily establishing connections and developing skills that will later take much more time and effort. If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language or a new sport as an adult, you might have noticed how much harder it was to achieve a desirable level of competence than it was when you were a child.
Starting early in math means introducing your child to the world of math concepts through everyday life activities and events. Young parents often ask: When should we start doing this? The answer is simple: You don't have to do anything special and hopefully you are already doing this every time you talk to your baby. Words like: first and second, bigger and smaller, greater or less than, one toy, two socks, three-four-five fingers. You say them every time you feed your baby or dress her. You do it by using every chance to count different objects (cars in the driveways as you walk around the neighborhood, people you meet, streets you cross), read numbers around you (prices in the store, house numbers, number keys on your phone), recognize shapes (a light ray as a straight line, a circular plate, a cylindrical coffee mug, a square rug, a rectangular box), or compare values (more, less, or equal). This will eventually build your child’s basic mathematical vocabulary, which will then make learning math in school much easier. The same can be done with basic operations, such as addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. The more your child is exposed to these early on, the more natural their relationship with math concepts becomes.
What if you have missed this age and your child is already struggling with math in school? Is it too late now?! In general, the answer is no: it is never too late to start learning anything and great achievements are possible at any age. A determined learner can always turn things around.
The major problem for older students is motivation. If motivation is there, everything is possible, as long as the student is ready to recognize and change bad habits. For years, your child has been required to memorize equations rather than to understand why she is doing what she is doing, to recall rather than to think, to fill in answers rather than write out solutions, to plug numbers into a formula or a calculator rather than develop logical, complex solutions...the list goes on and on. Changing these behaviors and building new habits will take time and effort, but if successful, can have a powerful effect on all aspects of your child’s life.
After elementary school, too many distractions rise against this type of effort: peer pressure, whether it’s “cool” or not to be a “nerd” in class, insufficient support from parents or teachers, etc. The later they begin, the more misconceptions and missing skills build up, and the harder the catch-up game becomes.
That said, it’s never too late. Interest, motivation, and determination together make miracles happen.
Still, the best rule of thumb is: the earlier, the better.