As dad to two daughters under-5, pre-school learning is a topic that is close to my heart. I tutor children from as young as 6 years old so I appreciate the impact of those early years; those vital development stages before official education begins. This tender time when the foundations of all later learning are built, through play, interaction and everyday activities.
Children begin learning about number, shape and space as they play with objects, pour water in the bath or share with their siblings. I was recently playing a game of catch with my 4 year-old, (currently at nursery). We were playing ‘up to 10’ and when my daughter got to 7 I had asked her how many more points to win. She paused for thought and a few seconds later replied ‘3.’ I will admit I was (pleasantly) surprised for I had not taught her any formal maths. It made me realise how children gain experience of more complex concepts in a practical context. For instance, children develop an implicit notion of probability, something that researchers have even found in babies. Developmental Psychologist, Alison Gopnik describes this fascinating experiment:
Eight-month-old babies were shown a box full of mixed-up Ping-Pong balls: mostly white but with some red ones mixed in. The babies were more surprised, and looked longer and more intently at the experimenter when four red balls and one white ball were taken out of the box — a possible, yet improbable outcome — than when four white balls and a red one were produced. nytimes.com
The groundwork that is laid for later mathematical learning through stimulating experiences and an enriching environment in the early years can’t be underestimated. In many ways children’s earliest learning is the most important, just as strong foundations are essential to any building. I often find that difficulties students are having in maths can be traced back to more basic concepts that were not properly grasped. For instance a primary school child who hasn’t fully understand the concept of ‘place value’ and can’t explain that 12 is one ten and 2 units will be totally lost when it comes to arithmetic beyond the most simple sums.
So, how can we as parents support our children’s emerging mathematical skills and understanding in the pre-school years?
Experts in Early Years Education emphasise the importance of learning through play and practical activities – this guide from the Early Education Association is a great introduction early-education.org.uk. It’s useless to try and drill very young children in formal maths with worksheets if these questions and symbols aren’t yet meaningful to them. The important thing is to help children develop real understanding and skills – a Reception class teacher once told me that some children arrive in school having been taught to recite the number names in order, yet cannot actually count a group of objects confidently. Parents often seem to focus mainly on numbers when it comes to early maths, but other areas of mathematics like shape, space and measure are also important.
Here’s some practical ideas for supporting young children’s mathematical development:
- Number Songs: There are lot’s of songs that help teach counting and subtraction – 10 green bottles, 5 little ducks, 1 potato 2 potato… and the internet’s a great resource if you don’t know any or can’t remember. Here’s a selection for starters… You can act them out and count on your fingers as well as singing teachingyourchild.org.uk
- Dominoes and board games – Orchard Toys has a great range orchardtoys.com
- Games where you keep score – e.g. football in the garden, or throwing beanbags into a bucket. A great introduction to adding and subtracting if you play ‘first to 5 etc’ ask ‘How many more do you need to win?’
- Water and sand play – a great way to learn about volume as children pour from one container to another, or see how many scoops it takes to fill a bucket
- Cooking together – great for measuring out ingredients
- Magnetic shapes – children learn about the properties of different shapes and how they fit together as they create their own patterns and pictures.
- Threading beads – explore pattern, sorting and matching while developing fine motor skills too!
Books – there are lots of lovely counting books and stories that help with maths, from classics like The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to fun rhyming books like One Mole Digging a Hole by Julia Donaldson.