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Math Made Simple
By Carolyn Tomlin

Burton White of the Harvard Preschool Project said, "If play is the best way children learn, then why not make all their work their play." Math is one of those areas.

Gone are the days when young children learned through rote memorization and endless black and white masters. Today's teachers rely on sensory aids to help children visualize the relationship in a particular problem situation. A child who learns by manipulating and discovering how laws are related and how relationships change exceed children who are subjected to the use of the chalkboard and worksheets. In addition, sensory aids stimulate curiosity and understanding--important for development.

Are you wondering how to provide children in your center with the rich mathematical environment they need, yet stay within your budget? Or, as parents, do you run out of creative ideas to expand learning? If so, look at the following activities for making math simple by using free and inexpensive materials.


Teaching Color

Teaching color is a concept taught before size, shape or numbers are introduced. Begin by teaching what "color" is. Spend one to two days, or even a week on each color. Start with the primary colors of red, blue and yellow. Add secondary colors of purple, green, and orange by combining primary colors. Then, add brown, black and white. Demonstrate that adding white to a color produces a lighter shade; adding black produces a darker shade. Activities include:

·         Collect discontinued booklets of paint samples from a supply house. Guide students to identify the primary and secondary colors. Which colors are shades of these?

·         Collect fabric samples and cut into small squares. Match those with plaids, checks, prints and solids for like and different colors.

·         Seasons and holidays have symbolic colors. Red is for Valentines; orange and black for Halloween; green is for spring. Point out clothing or objects in the room that reflect these colors.

·         Provide opportunities for children to mix water colors by using a medicine dropper and empty egg cartons. Add a small amount of water to each egg section. Mix and make new colors from the primary and secondary paints.


Teaching Numbers

Numbers are important to children. Any four-year-old knows how old he is or how old he will be his next birthday. Many educators believe that the development of number concepts appears to be a function of age and of educational development. Parents and caregivers should correctly use number terms in daily conversation, while listening for any misconceptions of understanding. Number activities include:

·         Use paper plates to construct a clock. Make hands from poster board and write numbers with a heavy black marker. Ask: What time do you go to bed at night? When do you come to our center? When is lunch served? Encourage children to move the clock hand to the correct hour. Focus on events that happen on the hour, then add half-hour events.

·         Make a take-home calendar for each month. Write in each day, holidays you will observe and other events for your center. Ask parents to place this on a home bulletin board for the child to check. On your center calendar, draw in daily weather symbols during morning activities.

·         Cut numerals into potatoes (cut numerals backward so as to be correct when printed) and dip into liquid tempra paint. Press on paper to make creative designs.

·         Set up a store by collecting empty food boxes and cans. A pound has 16 ounces; a dozen contains 12. Take turns being the shopkeeper and the customers.

·         Single line abacus. Remove the top from a small box. Punch holes in each end of the box near the top. Thread 10 buttons on a small cord, or a double thread. Secure to the sides of the box. Use the abacus as a counting frame from numbers 1 to 10. As children gain mastery, add more buttons.


Teaching Number Sets

Although children may be able to repeat numbers 1 to 10, they may not recognize the number or understand the correct sequence. The following activities teach number sets.

·         Snowflake Bulletin Board. Use ten paper dollies for snowflakes. Number 1 to 10 with a heavy black marker. Place blue background paper on the bulletin board. The child arranges the snowflakes in the correct sequence, beginning on the left and continuing to the right. Left to right progression is an important concept in teaching reading, as you begin on the left side of the paper and proceed to the right.

·         Collect 10 carpet squares from a carpet store. Cut numerals 1 to 10 from contact paper. Arrange the squares from lowest to highest. Walk on the squares when correct. For another activity, ask the child to select a number card from a basket and hop on the square that number of times. Or, place squares in the shape of block numbers. Crawl, walk or move in a creative pattern on the numbers. Ask: Who can show me how to wiggle on number four? Who can hop on number seven? This is a good activity for a small group.

·         Count the pasta. Collect a variety of pasta shapes and empty egg cartons. Remove the carton tops. Write the numerals 1 to 10 inside each section. The child adds the correct pieces of pasta to the section. Dried beans may also be used. Use adult supervision, as dried beans have been placed in the nose and ears.

·         Prepare a sheet of paper for each child. Fold the paper into four sections with a numeral written on each section. The child unfolds the paper and draws a group of objects for that numeral.


Teaching Number Skills

Children begin with basic number concepts. Mastering these basic functions, they move to a more advanced fundamental process. The following activities provide practice in using simple numbers to represent quantity and group simple quantities.

·         Clap and Count. Say: Listen while I clap. After you finish, ask how many times did I clap. Make up several patterns; allow children to be the leader. (Example: Clap…clap…clap; or clap, clap…clap, clap.)

·         How many fingers? Partner children and take turns counting fingers. As each finger is counted, it is folded back into the palm of the hand. Begin on the left and proceed to the right.

·         Collect bright colored buttons. Check yard sales and flea markets. Stand, and drop buttons one at a time into a plastic bucket. Count as each button makes "kerplunk" sound.

·         Ask children to stand in a circle. One child bounces a ball while the other children count the number of bounces. Children may clap the number of times the ball bounces.

·         Collect one-half gallon milk or juice cartons. Place them in a position for bowling. Stand a few feet away and roll a ball to knock over the cartons. How many cartons were knocked down? How many left standing?

·         One-to-one correspondence. Give each child an inflated balloon. Say: Each balloon needs a string. Provide the same number of strings as balloons.

·         Equal sets. Provide modeling clay and golf tees. (A local golf course may provide these for your classroom.) Instruct children to make two circles with the clay. Use the same number of tees in each group.


Teaching Shapes

Young children learn early in life to distinguish patterns of shape and form. Color is an important ingredient in identifying shape, but often the name of an object is more important than its color. For example, a young child can identify a dog before he knows the color of the dog is black.

Most things have shapes, but gases and liquids assume the shape of the container in which they are placed. Begin with the basic shapes of circle, square, triangle and rectangle. These must be taught and internalized before moving on to more complex structures. Use these activities for teaching shapes.

·         Save leftover construction paper and cut into basic shapes of various sizes. Place shapes on a table for children to construct a clown face (circle with a triangle hat); a train (rectangles with circles for wheels) and a house (squares and rectangles become windows and doors).

·         Take a walk in your neighborhood. Look for shapes in nature and the environment. A culvert or pipe end--is a circle; the end of a swing set--a triangle; windows--a square or rectangle; a door--a rectangle; a clock--a circle; stepping stones--circles and squares. Look for both common and uncommon objects in which to find shapes.

·         Temperature changes shapes. Place water (liquid) in ice trays, which becomes a solid. Place water (liquid) in a teakettle and watch the liquid become steam.

·         Pegboard shapes. Using pegboards or geoboards, stretch rubber bands to form basic shapes.

·         Connect the dots. Using a small nail, punch holes in paper. Children connect the dots by making shapes.

Research shows that when children have fun learning, they make their work their play. Simple math activities develop self-confidence, self-reliance and build the firm foundation in math all children need.



Check out the following web sites for year-round activities. You'll discover parent and teacher tested games, puzzles and crafts waiting for your child.