child number blocks

(Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — America’s next generation is failing to make the grade in math. Over the past two decades, researchers have been working to identify the best practices for math education, for students and teachers. Now, experts at The Ohio State University are using their research-backed evidence on what teachers and parents should do to build a solid foundation in mathematics.

“In 2019, only about one-fourth of high school seniors scored at or above the proficiency level in math. And all indications are that this has only gotten worse with the learning loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Nancy Krasa, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, and co-author of a new book on math education, in a university release. “The scientific research on how children learn math has exploded in the past 20 years, with thousands of new studies focused on how children come to understand numbers and various other aspects of math.”

The book focuses on the beginning of learning difficulties, which may be visible by the time a child is a toddler. One approach the authors propose is taking advantage of a toddler’s spatial skills. Learning spatial skills are essential in early math, but it is not something many early education teachers teach. Spatial skills are often associated with geometry, but recent education research suggests the skills broadly apply to all types of math.

“That’s something most teachers would have no idea about, but the results are remarkably consistent,” Krasa reports. “What is not yet entirely clear is how they are related — why do people with good spatial skills have an easier time with math?”

Parents can kickstart their kids’ math skills early in life

One hypothesis for why spatial skills help with math is that humans learn to think of numbers along a mental number line in space. In the classroom, this skill can apply to a physical number line to teach young kids about the position of numbers.

There are studies, however, that suggest you can teach spatial skills years before kids step foot in a classroom. Krasa argues playing with blocks starts to get the mind thinking about spatial skills. One study Krasa and her co-authors reference in the book involved mothers and their three-year-olds using building blocks together. They found that the amount of spatial language, related gestures, and planning support the mom provides during block play correlated with the child’s math skills in first grade.

Block-building as a child could shape spatial skills beyond elementary school. Another study cited in the book discussed predicting a student’s high school math course selections, math grades, and standardized math scores if they played blocks as a child.

Another important finding is the role of language in learning math

“Math language is very abstract. Students may understand math concepts better with familiar terms, such as ‘and’ instead of ‘plus’, for example,” Krasa explains. “Also, math is not separate from reading. Research has shown that children with reading disabilities, particularly dyslexia, are at a great risk for math failure.”

One study found that 55 percent of children diagnosed with a developmental language disorder in kindergarten went on to have severe problems with math by the fifth grade. This is 10 times the rate observed among the general population.

According to Krasa, there is still time to reshape math education in the U.S.

“I believe that with the proper supports, all children in the normal range of intelligence can learn math. Even with challenges like poverty, reading and language disability, weak spatial skills and attentional issues, they can learn and understand the fundamental concepts.”

The key is teaching students fundamental math skills early in life to make it easier when learning more advanced concepts in high school.

“Clearly, something is not working in math education in this country. We could be doing much, much better,” Krasa concludes. “If we’re going to get it right, we have to start from the beginning.”

The research is covered in the new book “How Children Learn Math: The Science of Math Learning in Research and Practice.”

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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  1. Emory Kendrick says:

    The ‘trick’ is to have kids do their homework and if they don’t understand something, to ask you fo help. Your job is to help them. It has worked for centurie.
    Math isn’t easy for some but continued practice will allow anyone to master it.

  2. Eva Tutor says:

    I just came across the article on “Children and Math: Playing with Blocks,” and it’s fascinating! The research findings discussed highlight the significant role that block play can have in developing children’s mathematical skills. It’s amazing how such a simple and fun activity can contribute to their spatial awareness, problem-solving abilities, and mathematical thinking. This article reinforces the importance of incorporating hands-on experiences into early education. Kudos to the researchers and Study Finds for shedding light on this insightful study!