Fun with numbers

Start with the smallest numbers and relate them to things your child knows. For example, when putting on their socks, count them — one-two, two shoes; putting on their jumper — one arm, two arms. When you give them pieces of fruit, count them out as you put them on the plate — one, two, three, four.

Ask questions relating to their body, so they can look and feel to find the answer. How many fingers are on your hand? How many ears do you have? Do this in a playful way — on car trips or in the bath.

You may need to convince yourself that numbers are fun. It helps if you believe that maths is really easy when you know how. Sometimes, as the child is growing up and starts to try bigger sums, we can make the mistake of giving them the impression that these are harder. They might even say, ‘No, not hard ones, Mum, give me easy numbers.’ Tell them they are all easy; they are just different. The trick is to find the easy way.

You can add up in hundreds, you know.

No, I can’t!

Yes — 100 plus 100 is 200. You see — one plus one is two. You can add one plus one, can’t you?


Now you can add thousands. Now millions. Now trillions! (Kids love this feeling of power.)

While you are driving in the car, a five-year-old will often enjoy answering funny questions. How many legs do two dogs have? Three cows? If we put 10 eggs on Grandpa’s chair, how many will there be after he sits on them? Ten? Or just one big mess? If I put four chocolates and two artichokes on a plate for morning tea, how many would be left for me and how many would you take?

At the supermarket, give your child a shopping bag and ask them to collect four oranges for you. There are dozens of ways you can bring numbers, fractions, dividing and so on into your day-to-day activities together.

This incident happened many years ago. Four-year-old Alice was left in charge of her little sister Meg, aged 18 months, while her mother went to hang out the washing. To keep her precious dolls out of reach of the baby, Alice climbed up and put them on a bookshelf. The little child clambered up after them, on to the first shelf, dislodging a heavy potplant which landed on her head, as she and it fell to the floor. She wasn’t badly hurt but, if she had been, there would have been two damaged children — one with a physical injury, the other with a huge guilt problem.

Four-year-olds are not capable of foreseeing all the possibilities that adults can. They act by impulse, rather than intention, and the impulse to fix a problem can be even more damaging than the original problem. It is our responsibility as parents not to expose them to the potential of lifelong guilt.

Kids can easily feel over-responsible, so keep a sense of proportion. We meet many children who are distressed by feeling too responsible, especially when there is stress in the family — death, illness or marriage breakup. Children at this age are developing compassion and have a lot of intuition about things which they don’t yet understand in words. They want to help.

A three-year-old picks some flowers and takes them to an old lady in the park. You can see the old lady is very moved by this — how did the child know she was a person who ‘needed’ this gesture?

While parents are having a heated argument, their child comes in and stands between them. ‘I’ve got a better idea,’ he says earnestly, using the same words they use to mediate in his fights with his friends. While this is ‘cute’, it clearly shows how children can take on the burden of things which should not be their problem. Parents need to say, ‘We are sorting something out. We will figure it out. You don’t need to worry about it. Go and find something to play with.’ The child may still worry, but knows now that it’s nothing to do with him.

Similarly, children should never be told that they ‘make Mummy sick’, ‘made Daddy leave’, ‘are a worry to Grandma’ or ‘have to be Mummy’s big man now’. While children do’have a need to know what is going on, and not be shielded from facts of life, like death, sickness and departures, be careful not to burden them with adult responsibilities. In conclusion …

The great thing about this age group is their emerging personhood. You have a companion and friend. While we’ve emphasised the discipline and teaching aspects, much of the time spent with them is delightful, laughter-filled and interesting. At this stage, you can already see the future person emerging. Enjoy their company; it’s a brief but beautiful time.

Essential materials

Useful things to have in the house for three- to four-year-olds include: paints and brushes paper and pencils scissors with blunt ends non-toxic glue a large box to store smaller boxes, toilet-roll holders, plastic lids and so on IvJ recycled household goods, like egg cartons playdough in buckets waterplay bucket for outside, holding funnels, plastic lids, bottles, tubes, squirters and so on (can also be used in the bath) — balls, bats, books, music or story tapes, puzzles, blocks, a >’]) ‘ swing ~J old couch with removable pillows, rugs, cushions