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Math Counts! Fun & Creative Ways to Present Math Concepts to Young Children
By Shelley Butler

I have two elephants!” exclaimed Jamie. “I had three horses, but I ate one,” replied Mattie. Overhearing this conversation, Ms. Molina decided to seize the opportunity to teach numbers and help children practice counting by asking, “How many elephants do you have, Josh? How about you, Angela? How many horses does Mattie have after eating one?” Soon all the kids at the snack table were counting and comparing their animals while Ms. Molina recorded the results on the board. Then, she created a group of crackers, asked the children to guess how many, and led the counting. A good time was had by all.            

Though preschoolers generally don’t recognize it, math is another way to understand and make sense of the world, much like language. Like words, math is used everywhere and is an integral part of everyday life. What exactly is math? Simply put, math is the observation, identification, description and explanation of numbers, space, relation, and order. Counting, measuring, problem solving, reasoning, and identifying shapes and patterns are the activities of math. Preschoolers, like those in Ms. Molina’s class, who have opportunities to learn math through play and everyday interactions are gaining the foundation for math development.


A Math State of Mind

Beyond exposing young kids to math, fostering a healthy attitude is key. A math attitude includes observing that math is all around, identifying math as fun and interesting, and believing that math is something you can do. When a child notices that mittens make a pair, observes the similar shape of stop signs, or delights in counting animal crackers, this child is not only doing math, but also showing a healthy math attitude.


How Children Learn Math     

Keep in mind that preschool children learn best when they are:

·         Allowed to go at their own pace.

·         Not forced.

·         Encouraged to explore, think, and solve problems for themselves.

·         Actively engaged in something that has meaning to them.

·         Having fun. 

As Arthur Baroody, Professor at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on the mathematical learning of young children, says:            

“The best way to teach preschool children (or students of any age) is in a purposeful manner—in a context that has a purpose to the child. Teaching moments can be created by playing a game that involves mathematics (e.g. recognizing the number of dots on a die or a domino). Everyday activities provide a wealth of real learning opportunities…Basically, teachers [and parents] need to find or manufacture situations that create a real need on the part of the child to use, and thus learn or practice math.”


Having Fun with Numbers and Math Concepts

Watch for opportunities to “spy” numbers and shapes, count children in groups or lines, and measure everyday objects and each other. Also, create special opportunities to learn math through play and activities, such as these that follow.  

·         Birthday Numbers. Gather as many index cards as the number of children, and markers. Ask each child to tell you his or her birth date (be prepared to help). Write each child’s name on the card and then show what their birthday looks like written in numbers. A child born on Sept. 9, 1999 might be pleased to see that numbers can also represent his birthday as 9/9/99. Proudly display the birthday numbers around the room.  

·         How Many? Ask the children“how many?” to encourage them to count and compare things in their lives. Chart the answers so children can see how numbers represent people and other real things, and so they can compare the numbers in their lives with others. Some questions you could ask: How many kids live in your home? or How many people choose blue for their favorite color? Display the charts, so that you can refer back to them from time to time.   

·         Math Beat. Gather a drum, rhythm sticks, bells, or anything that you can use to create a beat. As you bang the instrument, count out each beat and ask the children to join you. Then, ask the children to count the beats silently. Bang the instrument two or three times to start and then ask the children how many beats they counted. Let children take turns beating the drum. For added difficulty, beat and count different sounds. For example, one bang of the drum, one ring of the bell, and one clap of the rhythm sticks create three beats.


Shapes and Patterns  

·         Snack Shapes. For snack time, occasionally offer a variety of foods in different shapes, such as round and square snack crackers, round oranges or apples, bananas cut into round slices, and sandwiches cut in triangles. Ask the kids which shapes taste best. You could have a “Round Snack Day” one day, a “Square Snack Day” on another, and a “Snack Shapes Day” on yet another.

·         Shape Magic. Give each child a square piece of paper and ask if they can identify the shape. Starting with one point of the square, show how to fold it to magically create a triangle. Next, fold the triangle in such a way that all three points meet at the top, creating a square that is a quarter the size of the original. Ask the children to unfold the paper back to its original shape, and using two different colored markers, draw lines where the folds occur. Then, count how many squares and triangles the folds created on the paper.  

·         Circle Time. Show the children what a cylinder looks like. Describe its properties, and show several examples of cylindrical objects used everyday. Give each child pieces of blank paper, crayons, or colored pencils, and a cylindrical object. Demonstrate how to trace a cylinder on paper to create circles on the page, and let circle time begin.


Sorting and Measuring 

·         Money Sort. Gather pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. Start by mixing pennies and quarters in a pile, and asking children to sort them into two piles. Then, mix in a third type of coin, and ask the children to sort again. For those ready for more difficult sorting, mix four coins and allow children to sort. Ask questions such as, “How are these coins different? When might you use a penny when shopping? What can you buy with a quarter? Are the coins the same size? Which is larger and which is smaller?” Ask children to guess how many coins are in the pile and then count them together.  

·         Measuring Crayons. Following coloring time, give each child two crayons of differing lengths and ask, “Which is longer? Which is shorter?” Give crayons of three different lengths to children who need more of a challenge and urge them to put the crayons in order from shortest to longest. Ask more questions to encourage thinking like, “Does a shorter crayon work better than a longer crayon? Why or why not?” To demonstrate how we describe length in numbers as well as words, give each child a ruler and show how to measure crayons.


Read About It

Sharing books about numbers, shapes, and counting opens the doors to even more math learning, especially when you stop to talk, ask questions, and invite participation. Here are just a few of the many great new books for children that can foster math learning:

·         Are Eggs Square? (A DK See-Through) DK, ISBN 0789498499. This inventive new book asks and answers shape questions and is super fun! Cut-out pages, good humor, and photos create a great opportunity to learn about shapes. 

·         A Frog in the Bog by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Joan Rankin Simon & Schuster, ISBN0689840810. A small green frog sitting on a log eats up ONE tick, TWO fleas, and so on, while readers are treated to a delightful peek inside his belly. Repeating text and a surprise ending are sure to add up to a gaggle of giggles.  

·         Daisy 123 by Peter Catalanotto Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0689854579. For a fun romp through numbers one through 20, take a visit to Mrs. Tuttle’s obedience class. 20 Dalmatians are enrolled—all named Daisy! Counting fun abounds on every page.


The Power of Learning

“It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment,” said Karl Gauss, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. As you explore math with young children, watch for opportunities to help children think and learn, rather than just gain correct math knowledge. Young children who have creative opportunities to experience math with the greatest enjoyment, and who come to know that math is a gratifying part of everyday life acquire an important start toward a lifelong love of math.


Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of The Field Guide to Parenting. To contact the author or learn more about her work, please visit: www.fieldguidetoparenting.info.