Teaching Math to Children (K-5)

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Mathematics is a standard part of any educational curriculum, including kindergarten and early education. Fundamental math skills serve as the building blocks for post-secondary education, as well as important life skills. A poor understanding of number systems can affect an adult's ability to find work, and it can also hinder them from successfully navigating the country's financial markets; without a grasp of basic math, banking, household budgeting, and managing your credit are all much more difficult.

According to the U.S. Center for Educational Statistics, one in five adults possess math skills equivalent to those of an average eighth-grader. Recent studies argue there is a link between the mastery of early math skills and future performance. Researchers at the University of Missouri corroborated this theory by testing first graders for basic math skills, and then testing them again as seventh­ graders for math skills that were somewhat predictive of future employability. Students who performed poorly on the first test performed poorly on the later test, indicating that early education in mathematics (or a lack thereof) can have a lifelong impact.

A different study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, used MRI imaging on high school seniors while they solved basic math problems like addition and subtraction. Students who exhibited low or limited brain response also performed poorly on the PSAT college board exams; students who scored well on the PSAT showed increased neurological activity while solving these basic equations.

What Math Skills Are Considered Fundamental?

Most elementary educators agree there are five essential math concepts which should be taught at all grade levels. These concepts can be introduced with increased complexity as children age and refine their understanding, but it is essential for all students to be exposed to the mathematical core during the window between kindergarten and fifth grade. W. Stephen Wilson, a mathematics professor and former senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, breaks down the five most important concepts at length.

  1. Numbers. The foundation of mathematics, children must first learn to recognize and name numbers. When children learn to count, addition and subtraction are introduced. All mathematics essentially drills down to these two operations, so the instant recall of basic math facts is required for any student to advance in math skills. Multiplication and division are later layered onto addition and subtraction.
  2. Place Values. The place value system is another idea that is fundamental to understanding math at all levels. Introduced first as ones, tens, and hundreds, the place value system ultimately prepares elementary students for higher math. Algebra's polynomial system is based on place values, as are advanced multiplication and algorithm calculations.
  3. Whole Numbers. Repeated lessons in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of whole numbers fosters a solid grasp of mathematics and confidence in its logic. Additionally, these basic calculations are actually simple formulas that prepare students for the more complex algorithms found in algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. Long division is especially important as it introduces rational numbers and estimation.
  4. Decimals and Fractions. The logical extension of teaching whole numbers is to introduce fractions and decimals. Becoming comfortable with these calculations prepares students for several advanced mathematical disciplines, particularly algebra. Fractions, decimals, and ratios also abound in adult life, both in business and at home.
  5. Problem Solving. As students enhance their mathematical abilities, more complex ideas are added to the curriculum. Building new skills on established competencies will allow students to confirm their new knowledge by solving problems that gradually increase in complexity. At its earliest level, problem solving introduces the translation of words into math and teaches critical thinking.

How Can Teachers and Parents Help?

Given what is known about the importance of establishing a solid foundation in math during elementary school, any reinforcement of what’s taught in the classroom can be helpful. Most K-5 children effectively learn math skills by playing games and taking part in activities that encourage participation from everyone involved. Today's students also have access to a wealth of electronic devices and programs that can be very helpful during the educational process.

Activities at Home

Many of the things that might happen in a typical American household involve math; these are great opportunities for parent to contribute to their child's education. Grocery shopping, for example, provides both basic arithmetic lessons (such as selecting items on sale, like five apples for $5) and, later, exercises on percentages, ratios, and for older children. Purchasing anything with cash can lead to a discussion on money and its denominations.

Cooking and baking lend themselves especially well to math education, as well. Recipes must often be doubled or halved to accommodate the number of people who will be eating, and this invites practice in division or multiplication. Measuring ingredients is a natural way to explore the idea of fractions. Even very young children can be asked to count three eggs or place ten cookies in a container.

Family games can also be secretly repurposed as math lessons. The ever-popular game of Go Fish can be modified so that players need "+1" matches. For example, a player holds a 3 and its matching card is 3+1, so she would "go fish" for a 4 from her opponent. A traditional bingo game allows very young children to practice number recognition; bingo cards can even be modified with images that represent numbers, like the side of a die. The hidden answer for Hangman can be a math word, and older children can substitute letters with numbers and symbols to form an equation instead of a word. A handful of Lego bricks can be attached in a way that demonstrates fractions.

Apps and Games

Today’s primary school students have much more technologically savvy learning resources than those of past generations. It’s not uncommon for younger kids to have access to wireless devices like a tablet, or at the very least a parent’s smartphone. Currently Google Play offers more than 1,000 math game apps for kids under 12, and Apple offers even more for iPhones and iPads. A quick Internet search will reveal many app reviews, often written by teachers, that you may find helpful.

Examples of games your kids can play without realizing they’re learning something include:

  • Marble Math: Players of this game drag a marble around a screen (or tilt the device) to hit the correct answers to math challenges. Younger players can identify odd and even numbers, perform simple addition and count by fives in the Marble Math Junior version. Older kids play the game the same way, but the challenges are meatier and may involve decimals, fractions, Roman numerals, or negative numbers.
  • Mathris: This game is played much like the iconic 1980s Tetris. However, correct answers are stacked instead of blocks. Playing this game successfully requires adept mental addition and multiplication skills. Reviewers claim that this is an excellent alternative to "drilling" math facts or speed tests.
  • Mystery Math Town: This app is appealing to youngsters; a friendly little ghost needs help rescuing hidden fireflies. Players embark on a journey to help, solving equations and using other skills to unlock rooms and explore passages. The game is customizable for each player.
  • DragonBox: Advertising itself as a way to “secretly teach algebra,” this app is ideal for younger students who are able to recognize whole numbers, or older elementary students who are beginning to discover algebraic equations. Players’ pet dragons grow as children solve increasingly difficult equations and move into new game worlds.


There is no shortage of online math resources for teachers and parents; a Google search for ‘math games for kids’ returns roughly 71 million results. To refine your search, it may be best to exclusively visit sites that are hosted or written by educators. Homeschoolers in particular offer comprehensive advice on interesting ways to educate children.

Here are some of the more useful sites we managed to dig up:

  • MathPlayground was created by a teacher. This site is targeted to kids of any age and is packed with math games. Other resources include videos, problem solving tasks, and traditional math practice that kids can do online.
  • Numbernut is a very comprehensive math site, also created by an educator. Numbernut is broken up by math skill levels. Younger users can practice shapes and colors, counting, addition, and other basic math skills.
  • Elementary Math Games was originally designed as an educator resource, but now students can access its free flash-based games and online puzzles.
  • ABCya is an award-winning site filled with games and apps for kids. Math skills embedded in these games include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, counting money, and telling time.

It is well known that a thorough understanding of basic math during one's primary school years is necessary for success later in life. Children’s fascination with games and all things electronic plays smoothly into education strategies for both teachers and parents. Supplementing a child’s mathematical education is easy, and requires no more access to the Internet and a little planning.

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