Forget tutors and special classes, math skills begin at home. Give kids opportunities to think numerically —, encouraging them to count, sort and add, and their comfort with numbers will grow. A new study offers some ideas for ways parents can do this.

Kids who enter school already thinking about size, shape and amounts will find it far easier to think about arithmetic in the classroom. Talking about numbers improves language skills, too.

Count out snack foods with your child when you serve them; show how the number changes when you add or take away one.

Belgian researchers evaluated Kindergarteners' abilities on symbolic and non-symbolic numerical tasks, and they also asked their parents how often they engaged the children in certain number-based activities. The more time parents spent counting with their children and calling attention to numbers, shapes and quantities, the better the children did on the numerical task assessment.

“We found that the more parents engaged in activities such as identifying numerals, sorting objects by size, color, or shape, or learning simple sums, the higher the children performed on skills like counting,” says the study's lead author, Belde Mutaf Yildiz. “ These activities — and talking about money when shopping or measuring ingredients while cooking — were linked with a more accurate estimation of the position of a digit on an empty number line. In addition, engaging in activities such as card and board games was associated with better pictorial calculation skills.”

The researchers, from KU Leuven, a research university in the Dutch-speaking town of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium, hope the findings will prompt policymakers to develop home numeracy programs, but parents can start right now, on their own. Make a point of counting out snack foods with your child when you serve them; show how the number changes when you add or take away one. Point out shapes. Have children measure ingredients when cooking or baking.

The study results don't indicate any cause-and-effect relationship. It is possible that children who are already interested and good at mathematics are triggering the interactions around numbers, instead of their parents.

The study is published in Frontiers in Psychology.