Playing with Math

This month’s CCEI Newsletter examines ways that early childhood professionals can enhance math-related learning opportunities for young children. The newsletter contains recommendations from NAEYC and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, including:

  • Provide ample time, materials, and teacher support for children to engage in play, a context in which they explore and manipulate mathematical ideas with keen interest.

Most of us can recall our own early experiences with math instruction and in many cases that instruction centered on a math workbook.  We may not have memories of how we explored math concepts as a toddler or preschooler. Because our earliest memories included pencil and paper activities, it may be tempting to try to use these same tools with the young children in our care. When we review the child development research, it becomes clear that those pencil and paper activities are not the most effective way that young children learn. While workbooks and worksheets may be used in elementary schools, research tells us that the best way for young children to explore math concepts in early learning environments is through hands-on exploration and play.

Let’s take a look at a few characteristics of play that support the development of pre-math skills that children explore in early childhood.  Play should be:

  • Hands-on – Children should have the opportunity to touch, move, manipulate, stack, and arrange materials in unique and creative ways.
  • Self-directed – Children should have the autonomy to initiate their own play, choose materials, make decisions, and move on from their play at their own pace.
  • Active – Children should be able to move about the space, incorporating gross and fine motor skills into their play.
  • Social – Children should have the opportunity to engage with and learn from other children in the group.
  • Engaging – Children should be challenged to plan, investigate, create, and solve problems as part of their play.
  • Relevant – Children should be allowed to engage with materials that align with their curiosity and interests.
  • Sustained – Children should be provided long blocks of uninterrupted play in order to sink into the learning that occurs during play.
  • Revisited – Children should be allowed to engage with materials repeatedly, as they can extend their learning each time they revisit play scenarios.
  • Expressive – Children should have the chance to express their unique ideas through their play.
  • Challenging – Children should be encouraged to extend their knowledge, practice critical thinking, and take safe risks during their play.
  • Fun – Play experiences should inspire joy and bring a smile to children’s faces.

Take time over the next few weeks to observe children at play.  Identify times when you see these qualities of play and times when perhaps play periods could be enhanced – not only to enhance math learning but all areas of development.