If you’re wanting to develop your child’s interest and abilities in maths, start with child’s play. That’s what a new study published in Infant and Child Development has found.

Researchers from Concordia University in Montreal found siblings playing together with construction toys and games that have a strong memory component prepare those children for learning maths at school.

Their thinking is that children naturally teach each other mathematical concepts while exploring and developing a deeper and more integrated understanding of the physical world through social play, using toys and games that they are interested in and curious about.

The study focussed on informal sibling play at home. In the study, Nina Howe, a professor in the Department of Education and a team of researchers from Concordia University and the University of Waterloo worked with 39 sets of siblings who were each two years apart in age. They were studied at home first when they were two, again when they were four years old, and lastly at six years of age.

It’s not surprising that the researchers found that across their early childhood, older siblings taught 80 per cent of the time. What might be a little surprising is that their younger siblings also taught their older siblings 20 per cent of the time. Key phrases such as , “I’ll show you how” and “Why does 4 come after 3?” marked the teaching moments.

There was even a structure to the teaching experience with  siblings teaching numbers, geometry and measurement during the initial younger period. In the later time period they learned and taught concepts related to grouping, relations and operations.

It appears that children are engaging in exploration but also playing out the experience of explicit teaching in play. Certainly teaching helps to reinforce our own learning even as adults – in the process of teaching we must work to ensure that we understand what we are explaining.

Dr Howe is quoted as saying that “…children learn about math during experiences and within contexts that are meaningful to them – not just at school. In early childhood, informal play in the home is just as important as formal teaching in the classroom.”

This finding appears consistent with the outstanding performance of children in the Nordic countries whose model of childcare and learning is in “family groups” of mixed age children, where older children have natural opportunities to reinforce their learning in the informal way described in this study by teaching and also learning from their younger friends.

So in the context of our society, does that mean that children without older siblings are done for mathematically?  Not at all, but it does suggest that both playing games of these types with your child is important, as is giving frequent opportunities to play with friends, neighbourhood kids and cousins, with materials that extend these skills.

While it’s tempting to leave it to screen time, research also shows that mathematical learning needs to be three dimensional, hands-on experience.

When you play with them, join with them as a playmate with an air of curiousity, allow error and exploration, and let them teach you.

If you’re wanting some ideas, we’ve previously explored some fun ways to develop maths skills in our post  10 Fun Ways To Develop Maths Skills. For more ideas you might want to look at our Focus Pack: The 3Rs.


Nina Howe, Emmanuelle Adrien, Sandra Della Porta, Stephanie Peccia, Holly Recchia, Helena P. Osana, Hildy Ross. ‘Infinity Means it Goes on Forever’: Siblings’ Informal Teaching of Mathematics. Infant and Child Development, 2016; 25 (2): 137 DOI: 10.1002/icd.1928