For most, the best and most well-rounded skill children have is their ability to play. And play is an extremely important aspect of learning. Just a few examples, think about the child who while playing kitchen, neatly stacks all the toys bowls in one pile and the plates in another, or the child who pretends to give each of her three dolls a drink, or when another child joins play the first shares an equal-looking amount of dinosaurs. This may not look like the children are learning, or more specifically using mathematics, but they are. In particular, these math skills are sorting, one-to-one correspondence, and beginning quantification.
Teaching Beginning Math Skills Through Play
While the first two skills are separate and distinct, they both influence the third, quantification. Quantification is the ability to express or measure quantity. This begins in the earliest stages of infancy. Recent research has shown that infants have implicit knowledge of number and can distinguish one object from two and sometimes three. They can distinguish less and more, all and none well before they can verbalize the concepts.
Quantification takes place in three predictable stages of development.
- Global quantification—At this stage, children approximate quantity. For example, a child may say that there are the same amount of cars in each bin without concern for the actual number of cars in each bin. They simply look to be the same amount, so the child assumes they bins contain equal amounts of toys.
- One-to-one correspondence—Children at this stage can match one item with each item of a second set. For example, one button for every sticker on an index card.
- Counting—At this level, children can count the items in the first set, and then match that set by counting out a separate set of a matching number.
Because the individual experiences of children vary so greatly, associating these stages with specific ages is unreliable. What is most important is for parents (and teachers) to recognize this distinct progression of stages and model them during play.
The most effective modeling takes place during authentic play with the child, yet modeling at a quantification level at or slightly above that of the child.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Model real-life scenarios, such as setting the table, doling out snacks, or organizing toys.
- Talk to your child during play and ask how they are coming to conclusions. For example, ask, “Why did you put all the cows here and all the chickens there?”
- Comment on mathematical ideas when you see them in your child’s play. For example, “I like how you put all the red buttons in one pile and all the green buttons in another pile. Where does this yellow button go?”
- Challenge your child with mathematical concepts. For example, “Can you get socks for you and socks for Sister? How many socks will that be all together?”
I read recently that young children are wired to love math, but this enjoyments tends to dissipate by the third grade…unless their early childhood is full of positive math experiences. Exploring math through child play is a great way to reinforce the skills they naturally use and it’s an invaluable way to further expand those mathematical concepts that come naturally to children.
The following are some great resources:Teaching mathematics in Early Childhood by Sally Moomaw Quantities Development in Infancy and Early Childhood by Kelly S. Mix, Janellene Huttenlocher, and Susan Cohen Lavine Resources for Early Childhood by Sally Moomaw Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings by National Association for the Education of Young Children
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I am Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home mama of five! I am the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught range of levels, including preschool and college, and a little bit of just about everything in between. Right now, my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction