The pandemic slowed students’ progress in math, more so than in reading and especially in the younger grades.

As schools scramble to hatch recovery plans, experts say parents can also help children strengthen their math foundations — without worksheets, flash cards, or blind Google searches.

Instead, the tools can be found in everyday life: On a walk through the neighborhood, while unloading groceries, or playing games like Candy Land or Monopoly.

Angela McIver, founder of the after-school enrichment program Trapezium Math Club, and a former Philadelphia school board member, said parents are often far more willing to read a book to their children than try anything math-related because “it brings up really difficult reminders of their own math education.”

But parents can have a big impact on kids’ math competence with activities that are simple and joyful, she said. For example, while parents are cooking dinner, they might ask kids to gather and count all the spoons in the kitchen and then separate them by size or some other attribute.

The Kitchen

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Cook with kids
Put away groceries
Count dishes

While walking in the city when her kids were little, she would ask them to estimate the number of steps it would take to get to a point in the distance and then each would take the number of steps they’d guessed. The one who ended up closest to the landmark, won the challenge. She’d also number index cards from one to 100, and scatter them on the living room floor for her children to put in order. While her kids raced to finish the task, she had time to read Oprah magazine.

McIver, who’s studied older students who struggle in math, said if children don’t develop fluency and automaticity with numbers in the early grades, they devote so much mental energy to basic operations in middle school and become frustrated and miss out on the bigger concepts.

Doug Clements, co-executive director of the Marsico Institute of Early Learning at the University of Denver, said some people think performing well in math hinges on natural aptitude, but that’s not true.

The more important question, he said, is “How much opportunity have you had to learn about it?”

Clements said one simple thing parents can do is use number words in routine conversations with their young children: “Those three kids are sure having fun” or “Can you pick up those four puzzle pieces?”

He said children also learn a lot about shapes, patterns, and spatial relationships by building with blocks or Legos, activities that also help lay the groundwork for multiplication later on.

The Living Room

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Play board games
I Spy

Clements, who with his wife Julie Sarama created an early math curriculum, said parents can find abundant ideas for math games and activities on the internet, but shouldn’t settle for the first website that comes up in a search. A lot of online options are cute, he said, but explain concepts poorly or omit higher-order math thinking.

Such flaws, which also turn up on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, might lead, for example, to a child who can count, but doesn’t realize that counting will reveal the total number of items in a group. Or, maybe a child will recognize a triangle when all three sides are of equal length and the base is on the bottom, but not when the sides are different lengths and the pointy end is facing down.

“I would love people to be refined consumers,” Clements said.

Donna Johnson, assistant director of school supports at the Early Math Collaborative at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, said even before the pandemic, there was a growing emphasis on “family math” — a movement promoting math activities within families in daily life.

“COVID just raised a flag on how important families are,” she said. “Learning doesn’t just happen in school between 8 and 3.”

Johnson said she knows many parents fear that their children are behind in math, and that can lead to rote, procedural practice of math facts. She wants them to relax. Helping young kids can be as easy as talking about whose pile of books is heavier, whose cup holds more beverage, or how a circular object feels in your hand.

“Math is about problem-solving. It’s a logical way of thinking,” she said. “It goes just beyond the skills of counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing.”

The Bedroom

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Sort laundry

She said getting children to help with chores often brings math concepts to life in a concrete way. For example, when children are charged with putting away canned goods after a shopping trip they’ll learn the cans will roll off the shelf if they’re stored on their side, that little cans are easier to stack on big cans, and that fitting everything into a small space might take a certain configuration.

“It’s a puzzle for them,” Johnson said. “It does take more time, but it gives them experiences that are invaluable moving forward.”