Bedtime Math


Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about academic subjects, or job skills, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? Of course we can, here are some opportunities you could use for talking about math and resources to help you do it:

Bedtime Math

Download the Bedtime Math app, designed for kids age 3 – 9. It’s free and it’s available for Apple or Android. Just as you do a bedtime story, why not a bedtime math story problem? This app tells a short story from the news or a bit of trivia, then offers three levels of math questions: Wee Ones, Little Ones, and Big Kids (and sometimes “sky’s the limit” questions). You could just do the level right for your child. But my five year old likes us to do all of them, plus any bonus questions that might pop up. Wee Ones questions tend to be counting or simple addition or subtraction – my son can do many of these on his own, others with hints, Little Kids question may be two number addition / subtraction, my son can do these with hints and help. The Big Kids questions are too hard for him to do, but I talk him through how I solve it. And the Sky’s the Limit… well, sometimes we ask Dad or his big sister for help on those. There are lots of other math apps out there with lots of bells and whistles, but this one focuses on parent-child interaction – like a bedtime story, and is a nice way to settle down at bed time or nap time. There are also Bedtime Math books if you prefer the low tech option. In a research study, children who did Bedtime Math with their parents for a school year gained a three month advantage over their peers on math skills. Children of math-phobic parents made even more gains.

Addendum: I share my personal experience with Bedtime Math 5 months later in this post.

If you don’t want to use the Bedtime Math app or books, you can create your own story problems on the fly with ANY book you read at bedtime! Here are some examples of what you could do with classic books:

  • Very hungry caterpillar: Wee One question: he ate through one apple on Monday and two pears on Tuesday – how many pieces of fruit is that? Little Kid: How many pieces of fruit did he eat on Wednesday through Friday? Big kids: How many total pieces of food does he eat, including all the things he eats on Saturday?
  • Cat in the Hat: “He’s holding a book, umbrella, and fish bowl – how many things is that? Now he’s holding those plus a cup and a cake, two books, a little toy ship and some milk in a dish – how many things is that?”
  • Madeline – there were twelve little girls in two straight lines – how many kids per line?
  • Good Night Moon – there’s 2 kittens and a young mouse. Which is there more of?
  • Guess How Much I Love You – who can jump higher – Big Nutbrown Hare or Little?

Asking just one or two math problems per story would go a huge way toward fostering math literacy alongside reading skills.

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation

Check out Talking with Your Kids About Math. This is a fabulous blog, where he gives lots of examples of daily conversations with his kids (currently age 7 and 9, I think, but blog includes tips from when they were younger) and how he brings in math concepts in an engaging, curiosity-inspiring way.

Here’s a great video on how the conversations we have about bedtime can easily be turned into math learning opportunities: They also have one on math conversations while setting the table:

Hands-On Activities

If you have a little one who is learning one-to one correspondence, Wonder Baby offers some fun hands-on activity ideas. I also like the book OLD MACDONALD’S FARM (Poke-A-Dot!). Generally, I’m not a fan of gimmicky books, but I love the way this ties a familiar song in with counting, and the fact that the poke-a-dot mechanism provides feedback that they’ve already counted that one, so they only count each dot once.

How Wee Learn suggests 6 realms of math tasks to work on with preschoolers: counting, recognizing numbers in writing, one-to-one correspondence, shapes, measuring, and patterning. Then goes on to suggest easy, cheap hands-on activities that teach each of these skills. Some examples:

  • Recognizing numbers: using masking tape to make numbers on the floor, hopping from one number to the next, playing with home-made number blocks
  • Patterning: with contact paper, pipe cleaners and beads, and play-dough kebabs

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities!

Counting Songs and Books

Play it Again Mummy suggests Math Games for 12 – 30 month olds, which also includes tips for success with number play. Among her suggestions:

  • Counting Songs. Countdown songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…)
  • Counting Books: There are lots of wonderful options. Here are recommendations from What We Do All Day and Children’s Book Guide.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills:

  • I grew up going bowling with my grandparents, and learned lots of math while scoring their games. Sadly, modern bowling alleys all have the scoring machines, but you can make your own bowling game or invent any other game that scores points.
  • When playing catch, or Frisbee, or shooting baskets, or anything, count. Compare scores. Make it complicated by saying: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.”
  • When watching sports on TV, have your child keep a written score tally

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food at a restaurant, try out sugar packet math (or jelly packet math if it’s all-day breakfast time)

  • set out anywhere from 2 – 5 packets behind a menu where your child can’t see – raise the menu to show it to them, then hide the packets again – ask your child how many items were there – ask them to put the same number of packets in front of them
  • set up two sets of packets (say, one with three items and one with two) and then ask your child to put together a set of packets equal to the total (five)
  • tell your child to listen as you tap out a number (up to 7 or so) then they put out that same number of packets
  • or say “there are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”
  • In the cup, there were 8 crayons – I took out 3. How many are left?

Board games are probably my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice the math learning that’s happening.

  • Check out: “In search of the smart preschool board game: What studies reveal about the link between games and math skills” which includes this tidbit: “Geetha Ramani and Robert Siegler (2008) asked preschoolers … to name all the board games they had ever played. The more board games that a kid named, the better his performance in four areas: • Numeral identification • Counting • Number line estimation (in which a child is asked to mark the location of a number on a line) • Numerical magnitude comparison (in which a child is asked to choose the greater of two numbers). The same relationship was found for the number of settings in which kids played board games. Kids who played board games in multiple places performed better on all four math tasks. Similar results were associated with video games and card games, but to a much lesser degree.”
  • There are board games that are explicitly designed to teach math. Some are fun. Some are just flash cards and homework worksheets in disguise and not much fun for kids or parents.
  • You can instead look for any game you have to score… here’s a list of ideas:
  • You can make games:
  • I learned a whole lot of math (and strategy) by playing Hi Hi Cherry O, then Triple Yahtzee and Scrabble (double letter counts and double word counts and so on add up to lots of math challenges.) Another good option is Rack-o.
Learn more about the developmental process of teaching math to preschoolers here:
Have some fun with math today!


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