Menu

Essential Math Skills for Life

  • Written by Maren Schmidt, M.Ed.
As a six-year-old, mom would send me off walking for milk, eggs or bread to the mom-and-pop grocery six blocks away. These shopping errands were big math builders for me. For half a mile I had to keep in mind that a loaf of bread and a carton of eggs were 59 cents and the change would be 41 cents. What a difference 40 years (and change) makes.

As I watch in the stores, our children have few opportunities to see or use money, and to develop the math skills that dealing with money creates. I’ve worked with many savvy six year olds who did not know the difference between a nickel, dime and quarter. To them it was just money. These children had no concrete experience in counting, saving or making purchases with cash, since checks, debit and credit cards handled most family purchases. For many children under the age of nine, $37.62 is an abstract idea with no concrete, hands-on experience.

Fourth grade seems to be the point where lack of math concepts becomes a stumbling block. Having tutored math through college algebra, I can share a few fundamental concepts that struggling students of all ages have lacked. Understanding place value, the decimal system, the four basic math operations, fractions, along with telling time, are common missing math skills.

Place value and the decimal system are concepts that can be easily shown and understood before the age of six. A lot of math frustration can be prevented with the knowledge that our number system is built on groups of 10 items. We count in units, whether the units are pennies, dollars, minutes or eggs. The unit is the building block of any number system. Calling units "ones" can create confusion for some people trying to understand the difference between numerals and how numbers work in place value.

Our number system, the decimal system, is based on groups of 10 starting with the unit. When we have 10 units, we can exchange them for a new group containing ten units called "10s." Ten units make a10. Ten 10s make a hundred. Ten hundreds make a thousand. When we write a 10, it represents an amount that has one group of 10s in the 10s’ place and no units in the unit’s place. 100 represents one hundred, no 10s, and no units. Pennies, dimes and dollars are examples of units, tens and hundreds. Using money with children can help develop a firm understanding of place value. Ten pennies can be exchanged for a dime. Ten dimes make a dollar. Ten dollars make a 10-dollar bill. Using money as a manipulative, children at the ages of five, six and seven, can easily add, subtract, multiply and divide three and four digit numbers, such as $17.59 + $5.97.

Understanding how to use the four basic math operations in story problems and real life circumstances is another math obstacle. Knowing there are only four basic math operations--addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (yes, even in algebra)—ends much confusion. Again, using money for a hands-on teaching tool helps children see how the math operations work.

Fractions can be a challenge. Measuring with a ruler, tape measure, and cooking with measuring cups help give fractions real life meaning. Basic math operations with fractions come easily when the decimal system and place value are understood first by using money.

Telling time on an analog clock (with hands) is an overlooked skill that is important to geometry, the study of angles, and finding direction. A private pilot friend told me the hardest part of learning to fly was getting a quick picture in his mind when the instructor said "Plane at your two o’clock."

Use money to help your preschooler become proficient in the important math concepts of the decimal system and place value. (Please note: Use pennies, dimes and dollars first. Introduce nickels, quarters, half dollars and five dollars later.) Make up money story problems using three and four digit numbers and the four math operations. Use measuring cups, rulers, and measuring tapes. Have a clock with hands in your kitchen. Make math real and hands-on for your child and number work will be fun for life.

Kids Talk TM deals with childhood development issues. Maren Schmidt founded a Montessori school and holds a Masters of Education from Loyola College in Maryland. She has over 25 years experience working with children and holds teaching credentials from the Association Montessori Internationale. She is author of Building Cathedrals Not Walls: Essays for Parents and Teachers. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.MarenSchmidt.com. Copyright 2011.

Share this post

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter