If you haven’t already, break into your child’s piggy bank. It’s a great way to get mathy.

Okay. Don’t really break the bank. And certainly not without permission. But you can easily fill a few quiet moments with your young child playing with money, and in doing so, set the foundations for understanding many mathy concepts.

Here are some ideas:

1. Sort coins. Make piles for each denomination. Make a special pile for coins that you find from other countries. Be repetitive. Name coins by their denomination and their name. (Laugh together over why a nickel has a lower value than a dime but is bigger than a dime! Funny money!)
2. Identify equivalencies. But don’t call it “identifying equivalencies!” Sounds scary. Point out groups of coins that have the same value as each other. 10 pennies = 2 nickels = 1 dime. 4 quarters = 1 dollar = 10 dimes. Make trades with each other.
3. Play “store.” Imagine a store with your child. Perhaps someplace you go to together already – the grocery, the toy store, the bakery. Or maybe a unicorn store. Exchange money to “purchase” items from your child at the store. You might have a toy cash register you can use, or you can create a version of your own. (Our library has one, and the kids love playing with it when we go there.) Don’t worry if the prices are unrealistic or the the change given is way off. You can gently correct if you would like, but playing together will create interest and comfort with money that will eventually develop into understanding.
4. Play with Monopoly money. You can play the actual game (or some approximation of it with a young child!), or just play with the paper bills. You can use them for the “store” activity described above, or use them on their own. We have the game Pirateopoly, which has smaller denominations (1,2,3,4, and 5 “bits”) that are very accessible to pre-school-aged kids.
5. Save and Spend. Let your young children save and spend some of their own money. The 4-year-old is currently saving up for a \$60 scooter. This is entirely self-motivated (if he weren’t so excited about saving his own money, I might point out that his birthday is only a month away…) He keeps asking me for new chores to do around the house that will earn him money. When he earned \$3 for helping me detail the car, he asked, “How much is 3 dollars?” Hmm. A good question. I told him \$3 is 12 quarters. Then he asked, “How much is 12 quarters?” Oh. Okay. My answers are incomplete. So, I am going to draw a picture for him – like one of those fundraising thermometers, so he can see how close he is getting to his goal. (I am curious to see if this might be discouraging for him, as he sees that \$3 only inches him towards his goal…or if he will be motivated to make more progress.) Real problems. Real practice.

These mathy moments that you create with money are simple. They do not have to take long, and they do not have to be intricately planned. Take them as they come in the day. Bring your child into stores with you; play with the change that you normally don’t think twice about; talk about tips. Make it up as you go along. Follow your child’s lead and level of interest.

(Mathematically…this is about exposure. Your child may not understand everything you’re doing or saying the first time, but because money is a daily interaction, they will eventually become more comfortable with it. Then one day, when they are struggling with fractions like 1/4 or decimals like .25 and .10, they may notice the connection to quarters and dollars and dimes. If they have become adept at moving coins around, they will have a foundation and a scaffolding from which to build their understanding of more abstract numerical concepts. By the way, this is true of measurements in cooking, too…but that will be another post.)