Preschoolers' Early Math Experiences in Varying Contexts: Parent and Child Math Talk During Playful and Didactic Activities

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Eason, Sarah
Ramani, Geetha
The home numeracy environment, particularly parent math talk, are predictive of children’s early math development, yet it is not clear what contexts produce high-quality parent-child exchanges about math. Both formal math learning activities and informal activities where math is embedded in the task have been linked to children's math knowledge; however, there is a need for experimental studies investigating the contextual factors that contribute to how parents and children engage in math talk during joint activities. The current study investigated parent and child talk about fractions and numbers during didactic and playful math activities as well as an unguided play context. Seventy-two dyads of parents and preschoolers were assigned to one of three conditions (Didactic Instruction, Guided Play, Unguided Play) to participate in an activity intended to promote understanding of fractions. The conditions varied in the extent to which the activity was structured, as well as the instructions and materials provided. The quantity and quality of parent and child math talk were analyzed; children’s fraction knowledge was assessed before and after the activity. Parents also completed a survey reporting enjoyment of the task and whether they believed it could promote math learning. Dyads in the more structured didactic and playful math contexts engaged in greater proportions of, and more diverse, math talk than dyads in the unguided play context. Dyads in the didactic math context also used a greater proportion of, and more diverse, math talk than dyads in the playful math context. Despite the differences found in math talk, no change in children’s fraction knowledge was found after participating in the parent-child interaction. Interestingly, parents in the playful math activity context rated the interaction as being as enjoyable as did the parents in the unguided play activity; however, parents in both structured math contexts (playful and didactic) were equally likely to indicate that their respective activities would promote math learning. These findings support the importance of providing guidance to parents for engaging their children in high-quality math talk and highlight the need for further research investigating qualitative differences in parent-child interactions in didactic and playful contexts.