What to Do When Children Don’t Want to Do Math

There are many reasons why children express total disinterest, and getting them involved can feel like a daunting task. Here are a few suggestions for engaging all children around math.

Engaging young children in playful math activities at home and school can build math skills and positive math attitudes. We encourage parents and caregivers to explore math together with children and offer lots of ideas on the DREME Family Math website. Activities are available for both home and school, and we have learned that children and caregivers in both settings enjoy doing them. 

But children are not always eager to engage in math activities, even playful activities. There are many reasons why children express total disinterest, and getting them involved can feel like a daunting task. This blog is for anyone who has encountered resistance around early math learning and wondered what to do about it.

Ideas for Maximizing Math Enjoyment

Perhaps the most important guidance is to avoid the kinds of conflicts that can turn children off to learning math altogether. Math is important, but it doesn’t have to be done at any particular time or even on any particular day. In fact, learning interactions that turn into arguments and power struggles can do more harm than good.

Here are a few general suggestions for engaging children around math:

  • It is not a good time to propose a math activity when a child is tired, getting easily frustrated, or upset. 
  • Young children want autonomy, so offer choices rather than directives about which activity to do or how to do it: “Do you want to play one of these card games or Chutes & Ladders? Would you like to count paper clips or buttons?” 
  • Show your own interest in the activity: “I played this when I was your age; it’s really fun.”
  • Make it a game: “I bet you can’t find any triangles in the kitchen. Let’s see how many rectangles we can find.”
  • Provide a reason for why you want to do math: “Let’s count out how many raisins go on each bowl of oatmeal, so we make sure everyone has the same. How many raisins should everyone get, 5 or 10?” 
  • Follow the child’s interests and find math in the activities that the child enjoys. If, for example, your child doesn’t enjoy cooking, but does enjoy games, focus your math learning time together on games. 

Things to avoid when children refuse to do math activities:

  • Bribes. If you offer a reward for engaging in an activity, you are signaling to children that the activity isn’t fun or worth doing on its own. 
  • Threats. They take the fun out of anything.
  • Pointing out mistakes. If a child is struggling or comes up with a wrong answer, ask them to try again: “Try counting the bears again and see if you get a different number.” It is also fine to ignore mistakes. 

Supporting Children Who Refuse to Do Math Activities

Some situations require different kinds of responses, depending on the reasons for a child’s reluctance. Let’s consider the reasons a child might say “no, thank you” to your suggestion of a math activity:

They have other things they want to do. This can occur especially if you propose a math activity when they are already engaged in something they enjoy. They like math, but don’t want to do it right now. 

  • Describing the activity as “really fun” or words to that effect can sometimes pique their curiosity.
  • Another solution—and perhaps the path of least resistance—is to introduce the activity at some other time when your child is not occupied with something else. 

They just aren’t interested and see no reason why they should engage in the activity you have proposed. There are lots of ways to get them interested. 

  • Emphasize what is new and fun about the activity.
  • Engage in the activity yourself and sometimes, after seeing you enjoying it, children will want to join. For example, if your child doesn’t seem interested in identifying shapes on a walk, identify a few yourself: “I see four rectangles on that house. Have I missed any?”

Encouraging Children to Continue with Math Activities

What about a child who starts an activity, but quickly loses interest? Again, there are different reasons and approaches caregivers can take:

They find the activity uninteresting or not fun.

  • Sometimes making minor changes, like introducing a theme, can hold their interest: “Let’s pretend the bears are going on a picnic and one of them gets lost. How many are left to look for the lost bear?”

The activity is too easy and they get bored.

  • Try making it just a little more challenging: “You counted 10 bears, now here are some more. Let’s count and see how many there are now.”

They run into difficulty or aren’t sure of themselves.

  • Reduce the difficulty level: “That’s a lot of bears to count. How about counting the dinosaurs in this bag [with fewer]?” Or, instead of pairing the cards with dots to the corresponding card with a numeral on it, try: “Hey, let’s put the cards with dots in order. First, the card with one dot, then the card with two dots. What comes next?”
  • Make it a joint effort: “Let’s count the crackers in the bowl together.”
  • Give some help: “Let’s count how many bears you had—1, 2, 3, 4. Here are the two we added. Count them all and see how many you have now.”

There are many different math activities and ways to engage children in math learning. Follow the child’s lead and be creative and flexible to make the most of math time together.

About the Author

Deborah Stipek is Professor Emerita and the former Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. She chairs the DREME Network.