Children develop an understanding of concepts through experiences with real things rather than symbols, and much of early mathematics can be learned through informal exploration. Informal mathematics includes manipulating objects, learning mathematics language, and discussing mathematics ideas and concepts.
In Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings1, the authors note that “throughout the early years of life, children notice and explore mathematical dimensions of their world. They compare quantities, find patterns, navigate in space, and grapple with real problems such as balancing a tall block building or sharing a bowl of crackers fairly with a playmate. Mathematics helps children make sense of their world outside of school and helps them construct a solid foundation for success in school.”
Children need opportunities to explore and discover on their own, as well as opportunities for intentional activities that develop essential mathematical understanding.
There is a tendency for curricula to provide children with experiences in counting, simple sorting, and identifying basic shapes. What research has shown us is that children can actually explore a wide variety of additional math concepts through play—including comparison, estimation, patterns, symmetry, and spatial relationships.
One of the key elements of math instruction is using the language of mathematics. Math language can include quantitative terms such as more, less, many, and fewer or spatial terms such as before, above, and near. “Even seemingly trivial instances of ‘math talk,’ such as saying ‘You two get your coats,’ instead of ‘You guys get your coats,’ may be related to improvement in four- and five-year-olds' math skills.”2
To make math a part of their lives, young children need to feel comfortable in the world of number, quantity, measurement, shape, and design. This cannot be accomplished through “math time” alone. Unfortunately mathematics is often ignored in centers other than a designated “math center.” All areas of the classroom have exciting math potential, and it’s important to understand that mathematical thinking does not occur in isolation from other areas of learning.
Once children feel successful in utilizing math skills, they may eagerly begin using other math materials throughout the classroom. For children who tend to avoid math materials, teachers can help children gain competence and self-confidence in math by subtly including math opportunities in areas of the room where children feel comfortable. For example, “Children might use a set of plastic links to measure their buildings in the block center, use play money to pay for a train ticket in the dramatic play center, and use rulers to measure the growth of spring bulbs in the discovering science center. Take a set of scales outdoors so children can figure out who found the heaviest rock.”3
In the Early Childhood Mathematics online professional development course found on CLI Engage, Session 4 offers deeper understanding on weaving mathematics purposefully into daily routines. In the course you’ll learn how combining mathematics instruction with story read alouds is a natural way to integrate mathematics into daily activities.
When you think about the routines of your day, you will discover that there are a multitude of ways to include early mathematics.
1Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings, A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Adopted in 2002. Updated in 2010.
2Klibanoff, R., Levine, S.C., Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M. & Hedges, L.V. (2006). Preschool children’s mathematical knowledge: the effect of teacher ‘math talk.’” Developmental Psychology, 42(1), 59-69.
3McLennan, D. (October/November 2014). “Making math meaningful for children.” Teaching Young Children, 8(1).