5 Math Myths

Math gets a bad rap. Here, we dispel some long-held beliefs about how children learn it.
By Douglas Clements, PhD



5 Math Myths

Myths about math learning abound in our country. Although some may contain half-truths, they are not true. They are perpetuated, though, because most people have not been given the opportunities to deeply understand math and its uses. Unfortunately, these persistent myths can harm a child's chances at being successful in this subject. So know the truth: 

MYTH 1: Young children can't solve mathematical problems. While it's true that kids need to know some addition facts to problem-solve, they're not always exactly what you might think. For example, let's see how 5-year-old Jamie solved this problem: If you have four cards on the table and two on the floor, how many will you have in all? "Well, it's like fooooouuur," says Jamie, pointing to the table and then to the floor, "Five, six. Six!" Another child, a bit less advanced, might put up four fingers on one hand, two on the other, and then count them all. Both are powerful problem-solvers. Like miniature mathematicians, they have modeled the problem and used what they did know to solve it. 

Children know about numbers, counting, and "making more." They can put together what they know and invent ways to solve such addition problems. So, invite your child to solve real problems and fun, made-up number problems of all types! For example, ask a dinosaur-lover, "If there were two triceratops near the water, but then three more came, how many would there be altogether?" Just keep the numbers small at first. 
MYTH 2: Young children must sit down to learn math. For children of all ages, but especially for young children, good math learning is about engagement and interest, not drudgery and drill. High-quality early math includes thinking, active experimentation, and talking about mathematical ideas of all types — number, shape, spatial relationship, location, length, area, patterning, and so forth. Children might debate who is bigger or who is smaller, or they might draw maps to a playhouse. 

To create rich math experiences, encourage your child to engage in a wide variety of activities, such as building with blocks or estimating and then checking to see how many steps it is to the playground. Play games. Count the dots on dice and move a game piece that many spaces.

MYTH 3: Toddlers should not be doing math. If that means young children should not sit down to drill addition facts, of course, we agree. However, providing appropriate math experiences at young ages is important. Children are interested in the world, and even think about the world mathematically almost from birth. They learn math if they are given the opportunity to have mathematical experiences and talk about them. 

The younger the child, the better it is to follow his interests. Children learn the foundations for math concepts just by playing, talking, and singing, but you can help further your child's knowledge by providing a rich learning environment with materials that invite mathematical play. Such materials include blocks, puzzles, nesting toys, and other materials to explore. It is the reasoning that children learn from activities that is most important to their future mathematical development. So, to make these experiences truly mathematical, talk to your child about what they are doing. You can say something like, "I noticed you are making the building symmetrical — the same on one side as on the other." 

MYTH 4: Children learn math concepts by playing video games. Some studies show that older children can learn spatial skills from video games. But we know that, for young children, there are far richer ways to learn about space and shape, such as by crawling, running, and riding trikes, and by making constructions with a variety of materials. So, go "low-tech" for most of your child's math learning. When your 4 year old is really interested in the computer, you can offer on-screen activities with interesting mathematics. We recommend the Building Blocks software. 

MYTH 5: Time spent on math is time taken away from literacy and social-emotional experiences. This is simply not true. In fact, as the previous examples show, good mathematics is about moving, building, talking, and playing — all activities that build important skills in many critical areas. Children count the number of steps they climb going up the stairs, and the number of times they hit a balloon to keep it afloat. When older preschoolers play card and board games, they learn to share and play fair. Time spent on math also contributes to language, literacy, and communication skills. In addition, working with shape, puzzles build "visual literacy" skills that contribute to better writing and even IQ scores later in life.

Thinking Skills & Learning Styles
Problem Solving
Number Sequencing
Adding and Subtracting
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Counting and Numbers
Early Math
Problem Solving