Maths is all around us and you can help your children find mathematical concepts in play and at home, writes Dearbhala Cox Giffin
Learning through play is the natural way for children to explore, create and make sense of their world and the world around them. It is how children make discoveries and wherever they look, there's an interesting and exciting learning environment waiting to be revealed with limitless possibilities of nurturing young mathematicians! Play is the process through which children investigate, learn to question and make sense of what is new. Young children are naturally curious and the best time to introduce mathematical concepts is while their brain is developing rapidly in early childhood. Mathematical concepts help children to develop reasoning and critical thinking skills, which form the foundation for later learning in life.
Through play children also develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and discover environments. From the moment they are born, children are surrounded by sense impressions and can begin to recognise shapes and react instinctively to the shape of their parents' faces. They begin to make sense of their environment through touch and exploration and this fascination for learning and exploration continues right through life.
The opportunity to engage in mathematical learning is everywhere; the home environment, crèche and the garden are all brimming with wonderful learning moments. For many adults, the worlds of play and maths do not go together but it is actually quite the opposite. With the support of parents, children can grasp many mathematical concepts through their play as it is greatly influenced by the adults around them and what resources are available in their immediate environment.
Young children learn best with hands-on experiences and are learning maths all the time through a wide variety of play experiences, so keep it simple and begin with using mathematical language at home. This is easier than you think and can start at the toddler stage with your child. Have a conversation that includes quantity or size: which is bigger, the strawberry or the orange, and explain to your child that you are cutting the strawberry in half and there are now two pieces! Food, bath toys, steps to the garden and body parts are just a few of the many things children can have fun counting, ordering, and comparing.
Through regular use of mathematical language, children will begin to understand the concept of shape, measurement, dimensions, weight and will become familiar with patterns and numbers, and eventually understand the sequence of numbers and association with quantity. Young children also love repetition and rhyme so include rhymes, stories and songs about numbers in your daily repertoire! Sing number rhymes and songs together, eg 'One, Two, Buckle My Shoe', 'Five Little Monkeys', 'Ten In The Bed', etc.
Encourage your child to count out items in their storybook, how many animals are on the page or ask them to find the tall giraffe or the small mouse. Enrich your own language with mathematical concepts and your child will become familiar with these from an early age, and will have an increased awareness of maths in their environment.
Maths at home
A child's daily life offers many practical opportunities to learn about number, size, weight, shape, patterns, sorting and matching. Place a range of saucepans on the floor and your young child will enjoy matching lids to the saucepans or as they get older, they can help to sort the laundry - matching socks, folding pillowcases, sorting clothes by size and colour or different types of clothing. These simple concepts then transfer into their play.
Another very simple way for parents to encourage mathematical learning at home is cooking together and following a recipe. Children love to bake, particularly when there is a delicious treat to enjoy at the end of the task!
This is a mathematical-rich activity as children discover weighing scales and refine their understanding of quantity.
Maths and water play
Maths flows through water play as it provides a range of opportunities to explore science and maths, for example, learning that water is fluid, not solid, and that it can be measured in different sized containers. And it is great fun too! Use coloured water and a range of bottles, cups, small buckets and flasks - discuss how the containers are different shapes, which are shorter, longer, wider and which can hold more?
Coloured water is an ideal way to extend the activity as makes it even more interesting and fun and it is easy to see the difference in water levels in each container. Children will naturally explore water and pour it from container to container and count how many cups are filled from one container. They often extend this activity to include numerous variations of filling and emptying containers of all different sizes and will repeat it multiple times! They also begin to understand the concept of weight as they realise the container is heavy when it's full and light once it's empty.
Maths and building blocks
Building blocks are a rich source of learning that even the youngest children enjoy and are familiar with the concept of stacking, making towers and then knocking them down! During block play, opportunities for mathematical thinking and understanding emerge naturally and you can encourage your child by asking what they can do to make the tower taller? Children will naturally compare size and will look to how their tower can be made bigger or smaller or they place their blocks end-to-end to make a long chain.
The benefits of block building are deep and broad as children increase their general reasoning abilities. This activity grows with them from babies through to pre-schoolers and beyond, where children progress to smaller and more intricate blocks which they can build in multiple directions, resulting in some very interesting 3D structures! Embrace mathematical concepts with your child from an early age, and you'll see how they will benefit by developing their reasoning and analytical skills as a foundation for future learning.
Dearbhala Cox Giffin is Director of Childcare at Giraffe; www.giraffe.ie