A small dose of bedtime math goes a long way

Editor’s note: In the “Becoming Brilliant” blog series, experts explore the six competencies that reflect how children learn and grow as laid out by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff in their new book Becoming Brilliant.”

Parents generally realize the benefits of reading a bedtime story to children before tucking them in for the night. They rightly believe that exposing their children to books can spark interest in reading, something that is key to success in school. But the last of the 3Rs—‘rithmetic (aka math)—receives little attention at home. In fact, parents of young children tend to think that math is something you learn at school and not at home. They’re wrong!

When parents routinely talk about math with their young kids during everyday activities and play (e.g., “we need to put four forks on the table because four of us are eating—one, two, three, four”) their children enter school with a stronger math background. Talking about numbers, shapes, patterns, measuring, and spatial relationships with kids helps them early in schooling and beyond. Case in point, the math that kids know at the start of kindergarten can predict school achievement in math (and even reading) throughout elementary school.

But many parents don’t feel comfortable with math; they panic when they have to help their children with math homework. These parents often suffer from “math anxiety,” something that is all too common in our culture. What’s a parent to do?

One option is a free online app called Bedtime Math, developed by Laura Overdeck. 

Bedtime Math is designed to help parents and kids have conversations about stories that present interesting math problems. Unlike most other math apps, which tend to be geared towards children looking at a screen alone, the app involves collaboration between parents and children. Every day, a new Bedtime Math story is delivered to your phone or handheld device. Each story is math-infused and features questions that cater to a range of math levels. 

Armed with this app, parents who may have never talked about math with their child now have a way to spark an interesting conversation. Topics vary widely and involve counting, shapes, and arithmetic. One math story is about finding a megalodon tooth, the tooth of a giant sea creature that lived about 15 million years ago. The easiest question, labeled “Wee Ones,” asks, “If you have a megalodon tooth, a great white shark tooth, a teeny whale tooth, and one of your own teeth, how many teeth are you holding in total?” Little Kids, Big Kids, and The Sky’s the Limit constitutes the other levels.

In a large research study with almost 600 first grade children, we found that when parents and children do Bedtime Math, kids learn more math over the school year than if they only do bedtime stories at home. And, the benefits of Bedtime Math were especially strong for children whose parents are anxious or uncomfortable with math.

This freely available math app can spark math-filled conversations, helping kids perform up to their potential. And when your child talks about math with you, they are learning more than the math content. They may start to value math because they see that their parent is taking the time to talk to them about it and use it to solve problems.

Most striking, it doesn’t take much time to make a difference. In our study, on average, parents and children were using the Bedtime Math app once a week and their math-filled interactions tend to be only a few minutes long. It’s likely that that these short, relaxed conversations with the Bedtime Math app spillover into everyday life, increasing parents tendency to talk with their kids about math at home. 

So tonight, don’t just read your child a bedtime story, check out Bedtime Math.