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This Is Your Kid’s Brain On 1, 2, 3

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at KinderCare.

Right now, your preschooler is still trying to count their fingers and toes, but some day you’re gonna have to help them with algebra homework and on that day you’ll have 2 choices: Admit defeat (“Sorry, kiddo, I’m just not a math person”) and wish them good luck, or get up in that equation’s mug and solve for freakin’ x.

Despite what you might have been telling yourself since forever, you weren’t simply destined to be good or bad at math. Nor is your kid, who, according to research from the National Council For Teachers Of Math, is forming their beliefs about their math ability from a very young age. That means preschool age, or right this minute, if you didn’t quite put 2 and 2 together. Heyo! #Dadjokes. The truth is, kids can improve their math performance over time, and recent research has identified which regions of the brain account for that improvement.

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The same research suggests there’s a better way to exercise those regions than shoving a pile of flashcards in your kid’s face, which means you can start preparing your preschooler to ace that future algebra test even if you don’t know your axis from your exponent.

The New Neuroscience Of Math Learning
Tanya Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Dr. Vinod Menon at the Stanford School Of Medicine, recently led a longitudinal study that tracked 43 kids from ages 6 to 14, and she believes the research is equally applicable to preschoolers. Her team compared the kids’ brain metrics over that period — the results of periodic cognitive tests and brain scans — to track their growth in math skills. The results were all over the place. Some kids started really low and saw major gains, others experienced the reverse, lots ended up average.

Evans says she was surprised by the remarkable diversity of outcomes, and that her results should please parents because they signal a departure from the notion that certain brains are simply wired for math or they’re not. Any kid can excel in math if given adequate time and opportunity, Evans insists.

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Evans’ research also uncovered that math isn’t learned by just one part of the brain, but a network of 3 regions: the prefrontal cortex, the ventral temporal occipital cortex, and the posterior cortex (just nod along like you know what that means). The stronger the connections among the 3 regions, the more improvement kids showed in math performance. That indicates you can prime your kid’s math pump through targeted practice now, so they can live your unfulfilled mathlete glory days later. Those mathletes always got the girl, didn’t they?

What You Can Do With This
The 3 regions noted in Evans’ study aren’t math-only zones — in addition to cognitive abilities like quantity processing (understanding the amount indicated by a number or identifying which of 2 numbers is larger), they also handle object perception (the ability to mentally define something you see, and then effectively interact with it), and executive function (which governs things like self-control and behavior regulation). Engage your kid in activities that promote those processes and you’ll get those regions talking to each other more effectively. That can strengthen the connections among them and set up your kid for improved math performance long before they’re actually getting tested on it in a classroom. Or, if you want to sound like a neuroscientist: “Utilize different sensory modalities and repeated exposure of the same concepts, but in different platforms and ways. That’s wonderful.”

Wonderful, indeed, Dr. Evans. So, how, exactly, do you get your kids’ cortices connecting? Start by asking Meg Davis, KinderCare’s Manager Of Curriculum Development. She’ll tell you that making math relatable and fun is what it’s all about, and you achieve that through hands-on, “minds-on” activities that are relevant to their world. They don’t even have to know that they’re learning math; these fun activities are simply meant to build strong memories they’ll be able to recall later when real, advanced math learning occurs.

Count The Movements: Kids learn best by using their senses and being active, and yes, that includes math. So roll some dice, count the dots out loud together, then have the kid join you in doing some movement that many times. You can clap, bend, jump, shake — honestly, you shouldn’t need suggestions to get a preschooler wiggling.

This game promotes number recognition and counting as well as the aforementioned executive function since they’re being asked to take direction around specific skills and movements. It also teaches them the phrase, “Daddy needs a new pair of shoes!” (Ages: 2-3 years)

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Sort The Laundry: Go full Miyagi and teach them valuable skills while tricking them into doing chores. Count the socks in the never-ending pile. Separate and count them by color while constantly prompting: “How many white socks?” “How many black socks?” “How many mysteriously disappeared socks?” Which pile has the most?” After this introduction to information gathering and data analysis, they’ll be working for Nate Silver in no time.

Take this opportunity to introduce some new math terminology, again through open-ended prompts: “Tell me about how you’re sorting those.” “Let’s make a sock pattern.” Then … make a pattern (black, black, white, etc.). This activity makes math relatable to kids’ everyday lives and promotes foundational concepts like naming objects, recognizing patterns, and sequencing. (Ages: 3-4 years)

Grocery Shopping: The supermarket is a giant, poorly soundtracked math classroom. Note how much produce weighs as you put it in the cart. Count items as you place them on the conveyor belt. The dude behind you will love that. When you get home, have Junior line up the apples, or strawberries, or parsnips (kids love parsnips!) and count them together. Point out each apple’s position in the sequence using ordinal numbers (“First,” “Second,” etc.), and then ask them questions: “Which apple is first?” “Which apple is last?” “How do you like them apples?”

This relates math back to your kid’s real life and helps them with measurement, counting, understanding spatial relationships, sequencing, and maintaining self-control to not unleash their inner Very Hungry Caterpillar on all that tasty fruit. (Ages: 2-3 years)

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Playing Outside: Seriously! Climbing and running into stuff can teach your kid as much foundational math as sitting at a desk being forced to write all the digits up to 10 — if not more. Catching fireflies? Counting. Falling off the swings? Physics and balance. Getting your head stuck in the deck railing? Spatial relationships. Maybe skip that one. (All Ages)

It Might Be Your Problem, Not Theirs
“It’s not just kids that have math anxiety; some parents and even some educators think they’re bad at math and the kids see that,” says Evans. “It’s not just about priming your children and encouraging them to work with numbers, but stepping away from thoughts about our own abilities and just diving in.”

Now that you’re pretending to be a preschool teacher, you should note that the same network of brain regions that helps your kid learn math does the same for you. So, shed whatever preconceptions you have about your own math skills because Junior’s isn’t the only neural network that’s getting a workout here.

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