Maths in the early years – creating learning and learners
Tamariki are immersed in the world of mathematics, right from their earliest days. It isn’t just a school subject that comes later, but something naturally woven into their everyday experiences and play. Children want to make sense of their world, and maths opens pathways for them to do this— to name and describe, to sort, classify and arrange, and of course, to apply numbers to. If we take our children’s natural interest, and weave in our support and intentional use of language, their foundation in mathematics will be rich and strong.
Often when we think of maths, we think of numbers. But maths, especially for our young learners, is more than simply counting, adding and subtracting. Maths also consists of measuring, sorting, noticing patterns and relationships, understanding time, making comparisons, and recognising shapes.
We also need to understand that counting is more than just rote counting aloud, but counting something (a one-to-one correspondence between a number and an object). Numbers also don’t just have a forward sequence, but backwards too. We also tend to associate maths with getting the right answers, but at its heart, maths is about problem solving. Maths is about thinking both logically and creatively, and so playing with ideas, and estimating are valid and valuable maths experiences, even if the answers aren’t accurate. We don’t have to panic that a child will learn ‘wrong’ if we don’t correct them instantly. All of their exposure and exploring will keep building their understanding, and it will click over time.
Our young children are like sponges in the early years, learning so much about the world by simply living in it. Think for example of a young child who asks for two biscuits when one is offered. They probably haven’t had a ‘lesson’ on less and more, but they have certainly grasped the concept! A lot is soaked in naturally, but we can also offer a maths-rich environment without having to be school-like, or interrupting their play and regular happenings.
Daily activities are full of maths! Setting the table— how many place settings for how many people; baking— number recognition, measuring, fractions, time; shopping— counting out produce, locating aisle numbers, price comparisons; in the car— distance, speed, direction, counting games…just to name a few.
We can use maths language in very ordinary situations like, “you chose five stories for bedtime. That’s two we’ve done, three more to go”, or make up in-the-moment games, “we’re so close to home. How many seconds do you think it will be”, as you near the end of your drive home. None of this is a chore for a child, but just relaxed conversations, and engaging activities. We plant the seeds of maths with small offerings for our youngest children, and keep ‘watering’ the interest as they grow.
Of course there is also the children’s spontaneous play. We don’t have to ask them to make this mathematical— it simply happens as they play out the experiences such as those mentioned above. Materials such as blocks or loose parts that can be built, arranged, and patterned also give the hands-on exploration of geometry concepts that no sit-down lesson can compare with. Once we start spotting maths we see it everywhere— rolling a ball down a ramp, banging a steady beat on a drum, finding the right size bag to hold treasures, or threading beads of red, blue, red, blue— It’s such a great reminder that children learn through play, and play is learning.
We don’t need to buy fancy (and overpriced) maths resources from an education store, but there are mathematical tools that young children love to get their hands on: calculators, rulers, measuring tapes, measuring cups, watches, and timers. Many of these will be in our homes already. Rather than going straight into explanation mode, we can put them into little hands, and give them ‘permission’ to show us what they can discover. This creates learning and learners.
A last ‘tool’ we’ll mention is so useful for understanding how numbers work, and is special for us here in Aotearoa— te reo Māori. Note how “rua tekau” beautifully shows that 20 is two lots of ten, and tekau mā tahi makes so much more sense than the English word, “eleven”!
What matters with maths is that we remember how embedded it is in everyday life. But this isn’t something we have to spell out to our children— they really do know this instinctively. That’s why they come to it so joyfully, and playfully, and we can come just as joyfully and playfully to our role; a partner, in nurturing and nourishing their growing ‘maths brain’.