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FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 2
Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning


These scenarios might seem familiar to you:

  • A 1-year-old tugs at her mother’s leg, demanding, “Up! Up!”
  • A group of 3-year-olds receive unequal amounts of cookies, prompting them to emphatically point out who has the most. 

These examples are amusing because we can all imagine young children advocating to be picked up or wanting more cookies, but it’s important for families and educators to recognize these interactions for what they are: opportunities for children to build on their foundational mathematics knowledge as it is connected to their lived experiences.

Young children’s math development begins in infancy and continues throughout the early childhood years and beyond. And children learn math anytime, anywhere, even before they go to preschool. For this reason, families are critical to supporting children’s mathematics development. They can provide this support directly by using objects for counting, stacking, and recognizing shapes. They can also provide support indirectly, by connecting their children to math learning environments outside of the home (e.g., in libraries, museums, early childhood programs). But to do so, families need access to information about what math development is and how to support it, which is often not clear or readily available. 

What do young children need to know about math?
Generally, families and educators recognize that number concepts are important for children’s math development (for instance, knowledge of how many items are in a set, knowledge of the ordered list of number words apart from counting objects, knowledge that one object is paired with exactly one number word and that number symbols represent quantities). However, this is not the only area that should be supported. Specifically, geometry and measurement also represent important areas young children benefit from learning about in their homes and community settings. Core geometry concepts include shape (two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects), spatial orientation (where one is in space and how to get around), and relationships (where objects are in relation to one another). Young children are also ready to learn about measurement beginning with activities where they use rulers in addition to practicing with nonstandard units, such as a piece of string.  

What do math-rich environments look like?
Families can support children’s math development by providing environments that are rich in learning. Families can teach children to see and name small quantities, count, and point out shapes. For example, going back to the earlier scene about cookies, explaining that you have three cookies and they are the shape of a circle is a math lesson that children will be interested in and eager to know about. Families can also ask open-ended questions, which give children the opportunity to explain their thinking. For example, asking “Why?” “How do you know?” “Where do you see this?” and “Tell me how you figured this out” provides children the chance to explore and articulate their math thinking. Families are perfectly situated to ask children about these ideas and support their thought processes through the use of open-ended questions that lead to “math talk.” And this “math talk” can happen anywhere children and families are—at home, in the park, in the grocery store. 

How can families use print and media to support children’s math development?
Reading together is an important experience that can be used to teach about many subjects, including mathematics. Examples of high-quality storybooks include The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mouse Count, and Inside Outside, all of which families can use during story time. Young children are also exposed to many forms of technology, including television, online programming, and app-based experiences. Given children’s inability to escape technology, families can take advantage of it to support children’s mathematics learning. 

The articles in this FINE Newsletter: Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning explore family engagement in young children’s math development. Many of the writers are funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation as part of a strategy to support and enhance the role of families in young children’s mathematical thinking. Taken together, the articles in this series clearly point to important lessons for both practitioners and families:

  • Families matter for children’s math development. When families are engaged in their children’s math learning—for example, by telling entertaining math stories, playing digital media games, and doing hands-on mathematics activities at home—children’s understanding of math concepts and math competencies increase. 
  • Mathematics learning starts in infancy and happens everywhere, all the time. For this reason, families are critical to supporting math learning, and research from this series shows that families can do it in unpressured and socially positive ways. For example, reading all kinds of books with math content that is either implicit or explicit can lead to enjoyable parent‒child conversations. 
  • Families and educators must share responsibility for supporting early math development. Families need guidance and ideas for how to support early math development. Educators in a variety of settings (such as teachers, home-based providers, and librarians) can provide families with tips and ideas to encourage math learning. Similarly, educators need to understand the cultural nature of mathematics, and incorporate family and community practices into their teaching practice. 

The free, developmentally appropriate research and programs provided throughout this series are relevant to children and families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and they provide families and early childhood educators with rigorous math activities that are fun for the whole family.


About the Author:
Taniesha A. Woods, PhD, is the vice president of research and quality improvement at Lutheran Social Services of New York. Taniesha’s research provides insight about ways to support teachers in their knowledge and delivery of high-quality mathematics instruction, with an emphasis on improving the learning outcomes of low-income and poor children. Her publications include the National Research Council report Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity and the book Preparing Early Childhood Educators to Teach Math: Professional Development That Works.

This resource is part of the May 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project