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Using Everyday Objects and Materials to Teach Math
By Gretchen Glenny Damon, M.A.

With encouragement from their teachers and parents, young children can develop the necessary skills for life-long success and confidence in math just by interacting with the world around them. In fact, there are many fun and easy ways to introduce important math skills to young children without using the drill-and-practice method you may remember from your own school experience. Much of what you do with young children will not feel like traditional math at all. Developmentally, the best methods for encouraging young children to develop math skills include:

 

  • Using hands-on or concrete materials
  • Promoting discovery through exploration
  • Posing questions that spark intellectual and verbal involvement
  • Promoting problem solving skills

The math concepts important for young children to learn may seem simple, but they are the foundation for later understanding of mathematical relationships and processes. In your daily activities with children, these are the ideas you can foster:

 

  • Comparison: bigger, smaller, longer, shorter, heavier, lighter
  • Sorting and classifying: by color, shape, texture, size
  • Patterning: What comes next? What is the pattern? Can you guess my pattern?
  • Meaningful counting: one at a time, backwards, skip counting

Understanding the idea of comparison helps children develop measurement skills and learn to subtract while sorting and classifying activities encourage children to think geometrically and analytically. Working with patterns allows children to begin to think about symmetry and multiplication, and meaningful counting teaches the importance of the number system and reinforces addition, subtraction, and multiplication skills.

 

In this technological world, it is important for children to be comfortable with mathematics, but make sure to have some fun along the way. Below are some simple ways to teach children important math skills using simple object and materials. These are merely suggestions, and you are encouraged to let the children's curiosity be the guide.

 

Comparison

  • Put different objects (an orange, a sponge, keys, a stuffed toy, etc.) in a paper bag. With eyes closed, a child draws two objects from a paper bag and feels them to discover which one is larger, heavier, or softer.

  • Match lengths of yarn to the distances toy cars roll. Compare the distances by putting the yarn pieces next to each other.

  • Make parachutes out of handkerchiefs by tying a piece of string to each corner. Attach the handkerchief to a paper cup with tape. Launch the parachutes with different items in the cup (e.g., a rock, a feather, a piece of candy, etc.). Ask the children to predict which parachute will land first.

Sorting and Classifying

  • Collect objects such as milk jug caps, feathers, marbles, and sponges. Ask the children to guess which objects will float and which items will sink. Put the objects in water to see if the children's predictions are correct.

  • Encourage the children to name groups of things or activities. For example, sitting on someone's lap, exchanging kisses, rubbing someone's back, and cuddling are called "lovings." Pudding, grapes, and spaghetti are "my favorite foods."

  • Bring different kinds of buttons into the classroom. Ask the children to sort the buttons according to color, texture, number of holes, etc.

Patterning

  • Have the children draw a picture and then make a decorative frame using different types of pasta. The frame should have a pattern (two penne, three wagon wheels, four macaroni, two penne, three wagon wheels…)

  • Make a necklace out of colored cereal. Alternate the colors to make a pattern. Then eat the necklace at snack time.

  • Make rubbings by placing paper over objects with three-dimensional patterns and going over the paper with the side of a peeled crayon. Bike tires, leaves, and bathroom tiles all make beautiful patterns.

Meaningful Counting

  • Make a cake out of mud or snow. Have the children count the candles (sticks, feathers, or pine cones) as they stick each one into the "delicious dessert."

  • Discover things that come in pairs (mittens, socks, earrings). Using the items, count out loud by two's with the children so they become familiar with the idea of skip counting.

  • Have a launching party. Gather a "fleet of rockets" from paper towel rolls, toothbrushes, or crayons. Count down from ten and blast off.

Ways to Extend Learning
When children are engaged in play activities, take the opportunity to extend their learning by asking questions such as:

  • What do you think will happen if we add more to one side?
  • Why do you think that one went faster than the other one?
  • Are these shapes alike or different?
  • What do the objects in this group have in common?
  • How did you discover that?
  • I see a pattern, do you?
  • How many more do you need to make 10?  

Conclusion
When you explore mathematical concepts with young children, the central question to ask is, "Are we having fun?" Promoting an attitude of delight and fascination with numbers will encourage children to embrace, rather than fear math. When you combine young children's curiosity about their world with an environment full of hands-on materials and experiences, you are helping to create lifelong learners.

 

Gretchen Glenny Damon, M.A., is a freelance writer and teacher with more than 20 years of classroom experience. She particularly enjoys teaching math and making learning fun.