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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

Children Learn Math Through Play!

I walked into the two year old room and saw them scribbling away in a large box. They had a mix of crayons and oil pastels as their tools. One child had gathered a handful of crayons in his hand and showed me. I said to him,

"wow you have a lot of crayons. 1 2 3 4. 4 crayons in one hand!"

This child looked at the crayons in his hand then grabbed another crayon and showed me. Something was happening.

I said,

"How many crayons do you have in your hand now? 1 2 3 4 5. 5 crayons in one hand!"

This repeated again and again until the little hand couldn't hold anymore. Around eight crayons.

Math was happening and in an incredible way, especially for a two year old. These types of learning moments can often be missed. A younger version of myself might of missed it completely, or simply said "wow a lot of crayons" and moved on. These are the moments play based educators are seeking, like Sherlock Holmes finding clues. There are some learning concepts that take more preparation and planning but math often comes very naturally to children.

Math is such an interesting subject because despite what education companies try to sell you to make a quick buck, children don't need text books, special math manipulatives or scripted lessons to learn it. The world is full of math and children encounter it everyday. Unfortunately, some children don't get the opportunity to learn or show their knowledge in such a playful way. They are asked to prove it with paper and pencil in isolated segments.

Children use math everyday and we don't need to relegate it to a simple teacher directed lesson or worksheet like above. They explore counting, shapes, quantity, measurements, classifying and many more, often spontaneously in play. Being about to notice it, support it and take it further is where the teacher comes in. The example of the two year old and the crayons is just one example.

Look at this example of 5-6 year olds measuring their toothbrushes (a colleagues class) to see who had the longest one. Previously, the teachers also observed the students talking about the different flavors of toothpaste and invited the children to vote on their favorite flavor.

In one of my previous classes the students became obsessed with measuring things. Along with using loose parts and other materials to measure we also gave them real measuring tools like rulers to use.

Student: "How long is my zoo?"

Student: "How long is my car?"

Student: "How long is my finger?"

Teacher: "Let's find out!"

Children love to explore and Math concepts are so apparent in the world they easily become objects of interest. Tall-short, long-thin, big-small etc.

Look out for these moments of play that can be built on. Observe carefully, discuss and develop the play ideas of children. Know that math is all around us and it doesn't have to be relegated to a 30 minute class or set lessons. Children use it everyday and all they need is attentive caring adults to notice it and support it.


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