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How Children Can Bump into Numbers

February 11, 2013


We want to build interest, persistence and ability while making it natural and play-based.

Kelly Twibell

Preschool Coordinator

UC Davis Child and Family Studies

Before the children arrived to school, teachers had stocked the kitchen area of the classroom with restaurant props: a cash register, play money and tally sheets for taking orders.

Kelly Twibell, preschool coordinator at UC Davis Child and Family Studies, explains that when they set up the areas, they tried to figure out “ways children can bump into numbers” as they set up the areas.

“I’d like five sandwiches please,” says Twibell to her 4-year-old waiter.

Programs like Twibell’s introduce preschoolers to math concepts through play, rather than formal instruction.

At Concord’s Child Care Center, Master Teacher Desirée Lopez says math concepts such as “numbers, patterns, relationships and measurement” can be fun, relevant, natural parts of young children’s play.

With the right support, children can learn numbers and other math ideas as they play.

Create environments full of numbers

Lopez says in the math area, they have things for kids to measure, sequence, classify, weigh and develop spatial awareness. Examples include measuring cups in housekeeping, water and sand areas; puzzles; and chains with different color links to arrange in different patterns.

“We have a working clock at the children’s level and a poster of the day’s schedule with a picture of the clock showing the time, pictures of the activity, and words describing what happens at that time,” Lopez says.

In several learning stations in Oakland’s Harriet Tubman Educational Center, teacher Da’Monica Robinson includes puzzles and games that emphasize shapes and patterns. There’s also a math station stocked with board games like Bingo, peg games, number beads and string, and ditto sheets with numbers to trace. Robinson has also created a simple board game using dice to help children recognize and count numbers from 1 to 100.

Help kids recognize symbols

Robinson acknowledges that games like Bingo do not teach the deeper understanding of numbers.

“It just gets them to recognize the symbols, but the kids love it because it gives them a chance to play with each other,” Robinson says.

Lopez agrees that some rote learning or repetition of numbers is fine.

“During physical education we count during routines, so children get used to hearing numbers up to 20 or 40,” Lopez says. “This is for the rote learning.”

Encourage them to count real things

But to understand what the numbers mean, young children need repeated concrete experiences. On nature walks, Twibell encourages children to count the number of acorns they collect, tally the number of ducks they see or arrange their bug collection from smallest to largest.

Staci Maldonado, the owner of Play & Learn Preschool in Cupertino, recently observed 3-year-old “Molly” counting fallen leaves as she put them in a pattern. Molly asked her friend “Ivy” to help her get more leaves.

“How many?” Ivy asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Molly, “But I’ll count as I pick them up.”

Ivy began to count her own leaves.

“You missed a number,” Molly said.

“No, I didn’t,” Ivy said.

Their teacher just observed, storing away what she learned about each girl’s grasp of numbers.

Robinson encourages children to count everything in the classroom, from the number of ethnic groups in wall displays to the number of children present. And here’s where she gets evidence that children grasp what numbers mean—when a child complains, “Mrs. Robinson, there are too many kids in there. You said no more than four.”

When pushing children on the swing, Lopez says “after 20 pushes, it’s somebody else’s turn—that helps give meaning to the numbers.”

Help them figure out addition and subtraction

Through finger plays and chants like “Five Little Monkeys,” Maldonado begins to introduce concepts like subtraction.

Twibell plays “Bubblegum, bubblegum in a dish” during circle time. Then after a few turns, Twibell challenges the children, asking, “If I want 10 and I have three pieces in the dish, how many more do I need?” Similarly, Twibell might show the kids 10 bears, hide some, then ask, “how many are hiding?”

Both Maldonado and Twibell stress the importance of not shaming a child for having a wrong answer.

At these young ages, “it’s OK that they are not quite accurate,”  Maldonado says.

Twibell advises teachers to ask, “How do you know?” to get information on what to teach next.

An example is when a little girl wanted to make a book out of construction paper. She wanted it to have eight pages (and) she had six. Twibell says they talked and the girl was able to figure out she needed two more. Twibell  asked, “how do you know?”

Although a younger child may give a blank stare, Twibell says this little girl held up two fingers to show how many more pages she needed. So she knew.

“That helps me tailor instruction,” Twibell says. “If I get a blank look, I may model how to figure (this) out in a large group.”

Math for the very active

Outside Lopez’s school, Twibell explains they put hopscotch on the ground and use shapes or symbols like hearts as well as the number symbols. So instead of ‘5,’ there will be five hearts in the hopscotch square.

Twibell also tapes shapes, such as triangles or circles on floor. Then she puts on lively music and asks children to hop to a circle or triangle. Twibell says they get to move those big muscles, and learn that a triangle has three sides and a circle can come in many sizes.

Build “interest, persistence and ability”

When Twibell noticed her waiter at the restaurant didn’t seem to know how to write down her order, she asked, “Would you like to write that down? Or would you like me to write it down?”

Then she wrote the number lightly so the child could trace it.

Twibell says to build on the child’s interest.

“If he seems interested, provide a stencil,” Twibell says. “We want to build interest, persistence and ability while making it natural and play-based.”

Originally written by Cecelia Leong.