“This is easy!” the boy beamed, holding six green plastic bears in his outstretched palm. With a visible smile, anyone watching could tell he was enjoying the game, but what you couldn’t see was arguably even more important. The act of sorting, counting, and comparing increased this three-year-old’s brain development. The nodding, approval, and attention from his mother built his agency and identity as a young math thinker.

“Now, how many would you take away to have four bears?” asked his mother.

This turn-taking math dialogue was not only continuing the “game,” but also preparing him for school, math, and life.

When introduced properly, math can—and should—be fun for children. At Overdeck Family Foundation, we believe math can cultivate joy, engage curiosity, and unlock confidence for the youngest of learners, lasting well into adulthood. That’s why we seek to empower parents and early educators with the knowledge, tools, and high-quality resources that help them feel excited about introducing and exploring mathematical concepts.

What is Family Math?

Thinking of parents and caregivers as a child’s first and most important math teacher is not necessarily new, but it has not previously been done in a methodical and measured way. That’s where the idea of “Family Math” comes in. Family Math is an emerging movement to promote math activities within the context of family relationships and everyday life, from the grocery store to the laundromat, during breakfast, bath time, or bedtime. The practices inherent in Family Math are designed to help young children strengthen their math skills and feel enthusiastic and confident in their math abilities. Parents and caregivers are key in this work, as they are best positioned to interact with children early and often before they start Kindergarten.

When introduced properly, math can—and should—be fun for children.

Family Math can take a variety of forms. Beyond counting and comparing, parents can support their children in building number sense through finding patterns, exploring measurement, and introducing sorting and estimating. Games like Go Fish, pairing socks by color, stacking cups by size, looking for circles in the backyard, jumping every third step in the park, and many more help build these early skills. All these activities not only normalize doing math at home but can help families overcome the very common experience of math anxiety.

Why is Family Math important?

Millions of American children, particularly those from low-income families, lack a strong educational start. The socioeconomic math gap occurs before children enter formal schooling and widens for preschool-aged children. Fewer than 10% of children from low-income families can count to 20 in preschool, a skill that correlates to the strongest math achievement in 1st grade.

This has real consequences for children—as well as our country’s future. Research shows that entering kindergarten with early math skills is the best predictor of eighth grade performance regardless of race, gender, or family socioeconomic status; early math skills predict later academic performance more than reading abilities or socio-emotional development. Researchers also find that children who consistently struggle with math are less likely to receive a high school diploma or attend college.

Looking forward, the United States is expected to need to fill an additional one million STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs by 2022. Without math skills and interest, those jobs could remain empty.

The priority of the Family Math movement is to support families of color and low-income communities who have historically been denied equitable resources and who are most likely to experience the math opportunity gap. But it’s not only low-income children who need additional math support. Only two of every five U.S. students reach a Proficient level of math in 4th grade. And almost 70% of community college students and 40% of students at four-year public institutions take remedial math to catch up.

A participant in PBS SoCal's Family Math programming.

Families are a largely untapped resource for engaging young children in math activities and conversations that build foundational knowledge, skills, and interest. By empowering families and local communities to teach and reinforce math skills and identity early on, we believe we can address early math opportunity gaps before they form and strengthen children’s interest in and passion for mathematics.

Family Math partners

The Family Math movement was created in 2016 when a group of practitioners, researchers, and funders identified the opportunity of using family-based math play to build critical early developmental skills. The movement gained momentum through the collaborative efforts of organizations such as Zeno Math, United Parent Leaders Action Network, the Erikson Institute, and ongoing research-practice partnerships with Susan Levine (University of Chicago), Andy Meltzoff (I-LABS), and Sian Bielock (President, Barnard University), as well as the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, CME Group Foundation, McCormick Foundation, and Overdeck Family Foundation.

To date, we have created a research plan, a theory of change, draft measurement principles, and analysis of LOI responses intended to guide the development of Family Math measurement tools. We’ve executed a grant to University of Chicago to conduct a literature review of existing research, programs, and practices in Family Math, expected to be completed in December. As a result of our LOI, we’ve funded projects in two communities (Compton, CA and Worcester, MA) and are establishing a Family Math Practice Network for all six Learning Community Grants finalists. And we have implemented intentional structures to engage and involve families through a partnership with the United Parent Leaders Action Network (UPLAN) to create a Parent Advisory Council.

By 2020, we plan to launch a Family Math Practice Network, which will be a learning community of organizations who work together to improve their current and ongoing Family Math practices, share tools and guidance to monitor success, and elevate and resolve implementation challenges.

Families are a largely untapped resource for engaging young children in math activities and conversations that build foundational knowledge, skills, and interest.

As mentioned above, in 2019, Overdeck Family Foundation and Heising-Simons Foundation provided grants totaling $2.8 million to PBS SoCal in Compton, CA and Education Development Center in Worcester, MA with the goal of illuminating the practices and benefits of a community-wide approach to Family Math. These Learning Community Grants will not only allow these two communities to expand their Family Math programming but will lift up effective strategies and tools that can be disseminated to other communities.

PBS SoCal and Education Development Center were selected from a pool of 220 applicants because their leaders identified specific areas of opportunity to promote Family Math in historically disadvantaged communities. Both organizations are taking a collaborative and learning-oriented approach to expanding their programming, training staff, and refining resources that spark a love of math in authentic family settings.

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What’s happening in California

You may not think math when you think of PBS, but its far-reaching platform in Southern California positions PBS SoCal to provide content and experiences to 18 million people. The PBS SoCal Family Math Initiative will operate in Compton and serve a predominantly Hispanic community with structured levels of engagement all designed to build family advocacy.

PBS SoCal's Family Math program, which includes a heavy emphasis on parent leadership roles.

Based on their previous successful STEM outreach programs, PBS SoCal’s approach emphasizes the importance of community, collaboration, and content, as well as the power of adaptive learning experiences, the amplifying effects of family engagement, and the critical role of partnerships. The program was developed in part as a response to local community demand for more parent engagement in math education. As a result, it is designed to let Compton families run their own workshops, collaborating with PBS and partners to spread the word about Family Math on a peer-to-peer level to 6,000 parents over the next two years.

The initiative also has a close partnership with the Compton Unified School District. “CUSD hones in on math literacy, especially for young children who are in, or will be entering, our kindergarten classes,” said Superintendent Darin Brawley. Much of the work takes place with our early learning parent engagement specialists on the different campuses, and I know that PBS SoCal’s presence has brought in more parents to learn more about supporting their kids.”

What’s happening in Massachusetts

The second organization to receive a Family Math Learning Community grant will operate in Worcester, MA, a leading Gateway city: almost 500 new refugee families arrive every year seeking resources for their children. In Worcester, Education Development Center (EDC) will scale a cross-context (home and school) family math intervention called Young Mathematicians that has been proven to promote math skills of young children from low-income backgrounds.

The team at EDC has mapped out a range of educators who will interact with 6,400 children: in-service and pre-service Head Start teachers, coaches, librarians, family advocates, playgroup facilitators, and parents. Their common goal is to provide high-quality, accessible, and sustainable early math resources for children, educators, and families.

Examples of the Family Math activities introduced to families in EDC's Young Mathematicians program.

These resources will support adult-child interactions and engagement in math in multiple contexts with embedded supports that specifically address Worcester educators’ and families’ attitudes toward math. EDC expects that participating in Family Math programming will result in low-income and disadvantaged families from across the greater Worcester community building positive affiliation and growth mindset for math, increasing math activities and child engagement, and boosting self-advocacy.

What’s next for Family Math

We believe spreading Family Math practices within a community will have both short and long-term benefits for children. That’s why, with a goal of measurable impact, Heising-Simons Foundation and Overdeck Family Foundation are funding evaluations to track participation data and measure improvement in math attitudes and skills in both Compton and Worcester. These two communities are approaching the work quite differently but, ultimately, we hope to gain a deep understanding of how to create and sustain a variety of Family Math models that have both broad participation from families and positive impact for children.

If our hypothesis is proven out by the data, we will then explore next steps for bringing the concept of Family Math across the country to help families and children experience math as fun and approachable. We believe doing so will ensure that every child has a strong mathematical foundation that will help them enjoy and ace the math of everyday life.