Does your child build tall towers that crash all over your living room floor? Perhaps you find puzzle pieces everywhere? Or maybe your child’s favorite board game tokens always end up on the stairs and never back in the box?
Before you snap, keep in mind that this type of play is more than fun and games: it’s called spatial play, and it’s key in building your child’s sense of size, space, shape, position, direction, and movement. These skills may only seem important in the abstract, but they’re actually crucial in kindergarten as they affect your child’s early math skills and your child’s ability to follow directions.
Spatial skills are what help us cross the street, drive a car, or put together furniture, but beyond that they are important in math. It starts with Chutes and Ladders and winds up as a STEM career. Spatial abilities are among the skills measured for kindergarten readiness. Kindergartners are expected to recognize and name four shapes — circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles — and this marks the start of your child’s geometry lessons.
Kindergartners are also expected to follow directions that involve spatial math words such as in front of, behind, and on top of. A child who knows where their body is in space — like at the end of the line or next to your buddy — is better at following common directions in kindergarten and getting along as children learn to play together and share.
Early math expert Douglas Clement calls this “the language of space.” Clement, a professor at The State University of New York at Buffalo and co-author of Learning and Teaching Early Math, advises parents to use shape and space words, such as behind, under, deep, last, backward, triangle, and corner, in your daily interactions with your young kids. According to Clement, by saying things like, “Look, I cut your cheese sandwich into triangles,” and “I hid your shoes behind the sofa; can you find them?” you’re “mathematizing” your child through daily routines. Clement says that all young children have the same implicit (understood but not stated) understanding of math — but to make that understanding explicit (clearly stated), kids need to hear the language of math and get the chance to think about it and use it when they speak, too.
Here are a few fun, easy ways to “mathematize” your little one in the course of a regular day.
Practice math during story time
Whether it’s before bed or on the weekends, story time is a great opportunity to help your child recognize different shapes. “When you’re reading a picture book to your child, point out positions and spatial representation,” suggests Deborah J. Stipek, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “Say ‘The tree is behind the car’ and ‘The roof is a triangle.’ Ask ‘How many circles can we find in the house? How many rectangles?’” By using spatial and shape language, you’re helping your child get used to processing — and using — mathematic language.
On the hunt for shapes
Treasure hunts are “a great way to build math skills,” says Stipek. They require the same recognition skills used during story time, but in real life. Draw simple maps that require your young sleuth to orient herself, using guidance from your sketches. In this picture, is the church in front of her or behind her or across from her?
Ready for a bigger project? Try letting your child help configure the furniture layout in his room or how his toys are stored. Both will enhance your child’s spatial awareness.
Learn while doing chores
Want some help around the house? Have your little one stack small cups and bowls. Your preschooler can put the small plastic storage containers inside the larger ones. When it’s laundry time, he can sort dirty laundry by colors, sort clean laundry by whom it belongs to, or stack the smaller hand towels on top of the bigger bath sheets.
In kindergarten, kids are expected to follow three-step directions. But this takes practice! Help at home by helping your child learn three-step routines. It’ll help if you make them fun, too. For example, every night, have your child get in the habit of putting on her PJs, brushing her teeth, and then picking the story you’ll read together. Go over the routines together and help your child memorize the order. What’s step one? PJs!
When it comes to your child’s behavior in kindergarten, a solid understanding of prepositions, such as behind, over, up, and down, will help your child understand directions. If, for example, your child isn’t going to the end of the line or standing beside Larry when the teacher asks her to, you want to make sure it’s not because she doesn’t know what the end or beside mean. Why? Because following directions is a big part of what’s expected of your child in kindergarten.
Have a geographic adventure
When you’re driving or walking home, ask your little one for directions and see if they know where you are. At the zoo or at an amusement park, see if your tiny navigator can orient you toward the giraffes or the rollercoaster. At the grocery story, see if your personal shopper can find the fruit section, then the refrigerator that has the milk. Or ask your child to point out four circles, three triangles, a rectangle, and a square along your route.
In nature, perhaps near a stream, you can help your young engineer build a tunnel using sand or dirt. See if she can direct the flow of water by constructing a dam with rocks, twigs, and leaves to divert water to it and through it. These games will get your child used to thinking about where things are located in relation to each other.
Not much time on your nature walk? Allow your little geologist to collect rocks that she can categorize in various ways — size, shape, and color — at home.
So go ahead and let your tyke whip out the blocks and puzzles, and encourage your child to play to her little heart’s content. Construction and building toys, such as Legos, are favorites that are well worth the mess (and occasional pain when you step on them barefoot) because these shapes that go under, above, and next to each other are building a solid foundation for math and problem-solving skills that’ll serve your child in kindergarten — and far beyond.