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Teaching math skills in the early years

It can be easy to assume that numeracy and math skills are more developmentally appropriate for older children. While it’s true that rote mathematical learning can be effective for the big kids, little ones as early as the infant stage, already exhibit math skills in abstract and open-ended ways. For example, a baby who is stacking blocks is already showing spatial problem-solving skills. Another one who is dumping toys in and out of a bin is indicating spatial exploration and understanding. Neurological development is at its peak during the preschool years, so it is especially important for math skills to be developed in an early years classroom.

There are a number of math and numeracy strategies that educators can incorporate into their learning environment. Below are three of them: hands-on mathematics, math in all developmental domains, and making math meaningful. Keep reading for details, and for some activities from HiMama’s database that you can implement into your program.

Hands-on mathematics

A preschooler’s learning stems from wanting to understand how the world around them works, and this typically translates to them wanting to touch and manipulate everything. A math curriculum that allows them to stack items, measure things or add a kinaesthetic element to their learning aligns with this developmental stage. Learning is effective because these concrete experiences create personal meanings, and these physical connections are something that children can easily remember and reflect on. Check out the activities [from our activity database] below.

  • Snowflake candy counting – Children will develop counting and number recognition skills as they pick up pieces of candy with their hands and place them on the appropriately numbered snowflakes. Be aware that this might require a high level of adult supervision; not because it’s complicated, but because children can’t resist eating candy!
  • Making galaxy cloud dough – The math skills developed in this activity include measuring, comparing quantities, and seriating. Plus, children will form a strong neurological connection to this experience as they mix and knead the materials with their hands.
  • Gummy bear patterns – A person’s ability to recognize patterns is a foundation for more complex math skills such as understanding equations and geometry. This activity provides a strong (and delicious!) foundation for a more sophisticated aptitude for math. 

Math in all domains

The most effective activities are those that encompass more than one domain of learning. And a preschooler’s brain is primed for it because it’s like a sponge that wants to soak up as much information as possible. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends that math be integrated into all other activities in the classroom. So instead of putting math into a learning silo (in the block center, for example), make it beneficial by including it in your entire programming. Here are some multi-domain activities to try.

  • Beach toy shop – This drama center curriculum incorporates math skills into social dramatic play. Number recognition can be developed by adding price tags to the items, or a cash register can be added so that the children can begin to count money. If developmentally appropriate for your group, you can encourage the start of addition/subtraction skills. 
  • Finding numbers – What’s more fun than a scavenger hunt? This game combines number recognition with gross motor play, and its complexity can be adjusted to suit your group’s levels. Moreover, with a few creative twists, you can easily incorporate socio-emotional skills such as cooperation and group entry.
  • Weather chart graph – Math and literacy skills work in tandem with this activity. As children track the weather, they’ll be able to represent an understanding of numbers through graphs and charts. Literacy strengthened through the recognition of weather related words, as well as the group’s ability to express themselves in print. Plus, this activity will set them up for a lifetime as adults constantly talking about the weather.

Make math meaningful

Children are emotionally intelligent. So an activity with an emotional connection to the learning outcomes will be highly effective. For example, a child’s counting skills will be more meaningful if they count the days leading up to their birthday. Or spatial relation skills can be more impactful if a child draws a map of their neighborhood. A socio-emotional connection to the meaning behind math will make children more likely to learn. Try these activities!

  • Nature numbers – Children and nature go together like ABCs and 123s. Imagine the excitement and feeling of adventure as they forage through the woods (or the park) for natural items to represent numbers. This has the potential to become a memorable and meaningful day that your group can’t wait to tell their families about.
  • Ice cream scoop counting – Everyone loves ice cream! And also, lactose-free ice cream! There’s a high probability that your group already has a positive connection to ice cream, so let that positivity translate into completing simple numerical operations. 
  • Measuring dinosaurs – The math skills include measuring length, representing numbers through graphs, and writing numbers. The emotional connection is through the children’s interest in dinosaurs. This can of course, be modified to reflect your group’s other interests: bugs, feathers, leaves, etc. 

In the preschool years, play and learning are the same, so be intentional about how you plan and execute your math curriculum.  Let it create a high engagement in the moment, and simultaneously build a strong foundation for the future. What other math activities have you tried?

Looking for more great learning preschool activities for your classroom? Click below to access HiMama’s Activities – a free educational activity database for early childhood educators. Search and save hundreds of educational activities for your classroom by theme, domain, age, and more!

TJ Borile

TJ is a registered Early Childhood Educator with 5 years of experience, aspiring children's book author, and apple cider vinegar connoisseur. He loves hiking, meditation, watching animals in their natural habitat, and dancing to 90s hip hop and RNB. He currently lives in Toronto with his husband, where they have been bickering about whether they should get a dog or not for the past four years.

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