CEOs use them. City planners rely on them. And entire board room walls are devoted to their presence. So how can you help your child get a leg up and dive into the sophisticated world of graphs?

Graphing is an important math tool. It can be a simple way to introduce broader concepts of greater than/less than, or most and least. It can also be a great way to engage your child and create some enthusiasm for math.

“Constructing and interpreting graphs, especially bar graphs, is important in grades preK– 2 because it provides children an opportunity to count and compare sets of objects—two big ideas in number and operations,” explains Francis “Skip” Fennell, president of the National Council of Teaching Mathematics (NCTM). 

Indeed, being introduced to graphs at an early age can help children to understand huge mathematical concepts such as sorting, organizing, counting, comparing, and analyzing.

“Graphing activities for young children should be part of a broader context in which children collect some data, organize it, and then represent it in a graph,” says Terry Goodman, PhD, Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Central Missouri. “Young children can use pictures or even physical models to create a graph. For example, a child might sort M&Ms on the basis of color and then use the candies to create a "bar" graph where the height of each bar would correspond to the number of M&Ms of that color.”

So, how to get started? Here’s a simple plan for creating your first graph with your child:

Large sheet of poster board
Various colors of construction paper, cut into 1” x 2” rectangles
Tape or glue

  • Go to a place where you can watch some cars pass by on a street that has some traffic, but is not too busy. A park bench, or even your front porch might be the perfect place to start.
  • Spend ten minutes watching cars pass by. 
  • Have each family member take turns graphing the color of each car you see by taping a rectangle of the same color onto the paper so that it lines up as a bar graph. For example the first green car you see would get glued onto the bottom, with the next green car getting a spot right on top.
  • Older children can use markers to label the graph with the names of the colors along the bottom and numbers along the left side. Younger children can merely look at the graph to see which column is taller – the yellow or the blue, for example. 

Questions to ask your child: 

Which color did we see the most of? How do you know?
Which color did we see the least of?
How many red cars did we see?
Did we see more black cars or white cars?

Other ways to use graphs at home:

  • Observe the weather each day and make a pictograph or bar graph to track daily changes.
  • Goodman also suggests having children sort their stuffed animals by color or size, and then graph their results.
  • If you use graphs to look at data in your workplace, bring those home! Kids will love knowing they can “read” grown-up math too. 
  • A child who is saving his allowance to buy an item might create a chart or graph to show how much he can save over a certain amount of time. 
  • For older children, take your data to the computer and make a more sophisticated looking graph by going here or here.
  • Look around your house. What else can you graph? Types of cups in the drawer? Number of pillows in each room? Kinds of food in the pantry? Get creative! Your child not only needs to learn these math concepts, but she likely will enjoy doing this kind of math too.

Find more great ideas from NCTM by downloading a free math at home guide.