Haring Center

November 28, 2018

Exploring Numbers

Tips to Bring Math into the Everyday Lives of Children

Haring Center researcher Dr. Katie Lewis is challenging traditional views about how all children learn mathematics in schools.

“We think about math as something you learn in school,” she said. “Often we think that math involves quick and efficient calculation of an answer and the kids who are faster and can memorize better are more mathematical. What we’ve learned about how students understand mathematics is the memorization view of mathematics is really an artifact of our school system and how it is we teach math and it’s not what being mathematical is.”

Dr. Lewis’ work is in dyscalculia, or math learning disabilities. She works with future special education teachers to identify new ways of understanding math that empower them with novel techniques to make learning mathematics as accessible as possible. She recently discussed strategies teachers can use to embed math into everyday life and help young children build an important foundation that will be helpful for the rest of their lives:


Young children can benefit from routine opportunities to hear and practice counting.  Young children should have the opportunity to watch and participate in counting objects, in the world or in children’s books.  Kids need repeated practice counting before they understand that the last number counted tells you how many objects there are (count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, so there are 5 toys). As children begin to understand that number words describe the amount, it is helpful to start counting beyond 20 so that kids can begin to hear the regularities in the counting sequence.  Parents and kids can have fun challenging themselves by skip counting (counting by 2s or 10s). Counting helps unlock their ability to describe their world quantitatively.


Numbers are represented by people in a variety of different ways. For example, the number two can be represented aurally as the word “two,” or written in words (two), symbols (2) or drawings (··). For adults, translating between these different forms is second nature, we are not even conscious that we are doing it.

For kids to develop a basic concept of quantity, they “need opportunities to translate across all of these different representational forms,” she said. “We need to support kids’ understanding this concept.”

Dr. Lewis recommends using tangible objects to help children concretely represent quantity.

“Kids need a lot of experience comparing, combining and separating quantities. You can tell a child that 2+3=5 and 3+2=5 but that is not going to mean anything beyond memorizing.” Having kids explore with actual objects, like jellybeans, enables them to discover relationships between numbers.  If the child has 5 jellybeans and you hide some under a cup they can figure out how many are under the cup based on how many they can still see.  This gives kids practice with decomposing numbers, where they can check their own answer (by counting the number under the cup).


Dr. Lewis recommends meal times and other social activities involving sharing as an opportunity to embed math and lay groundwork.

“Kids are well tuned into the idea of fairness, particularly when it comes to something like sharing a doughnut or cookie,” she said. “Kids early experiences with this kind of partitioning and sharing provides the foundation for introducing ideas around fractions and rational numbers.”


Finally, Dr. Lewis encourages children and teachers to see math as an exploration. Mathematics is everywhere, you just have to look.  Kids are expert observers.

“Start seeing numbers, shape, and space in everyday life. You can look at a pair of shoes and you can think of that as one pair of shoes, or you can think about counting that as two shoes, or you can count the eyelets that the shoelaces go through,” she said. “There are different ways of quantifying by looking at very simple objects that we see with every day.”

When outside with children, try to find as many triangles and other shapes as possible.

For more information about this topic, email Dr. Katie Lewis at kelewis2@uw.edu