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

No math class😲 How do children learn🤔

"Education is not preparation for life. Education is life!" I'm not sure who said this but it's true, yet so many children experience education in artificial forms unrealistic from real life. We can see this in the separation of subjects even though life is often cross curricula, transdisplinary and requires us to use multiple disciplines and skills in any given situation. Let's take the simple task of going shopping for example. Some of the skills we need include literacy, numeracy, understanding of weight (pounds, ounces, grams kg etc.) and many more.

So if we opt out of the subject based approach where we divide the day by different domains (English, Math, Art, Chinese etc.) how can ensure children meet the expectations of the school or governing body that dish out these expectations?

1. Know your outcomes

The first step is to know what children are expected to learn. As a team and individually go through these documents regularly so you understand what the expectations are. In my school we follow China's 3-6 year old developmental guidelines. Recently my team and I examined the math outcomes to discuss which areas they are regularly developing and which aren't getting enough attention.

2. Examine and share how your outcomes are developed.

Great education is about making learning real and authentic. So if ask "how and when do your students learn math?" and your answer is "math class" this would be closed ended teaching and learning, isolated from real experiences. All the skills needed can be developed in many different ways with little need for a subject based daily class. Let's go through some examples.

A) Transitions

Transitions are the parts of the day where we move from one thing to another. A god rule is to reduce the amount of transitions but when you do use them make them count (see what I did there?).

A game I used to play during transitioning from one place to another involved asking children to walk different ways. "One by one" then once they did saying "nooo! Not one by one I said two by two" I watched as the students found a partner laughing then repeated until we made one long line "nooo! I said 11 by 11". There are various math related games we can play during transitions particularly related to number orders.

B) Morning Meeting/circle time.

One of the math benchmarks in the Chinese 3-6 guidelines is related to learning and understanding positional words (prepositions). A warm up activity I play involves developing this type of language (on, in, under etc.). It is essentially a variation of the one little finger song that goes from the classic version to one little toe. Others involve counting fingers and toes, counting how many children are here today, if someone is sick how many do we have now etc.

C) Project Time

Project time is a combination of different types of play including free play, teacher student play based on observed experiences and interventions (teaching a specific skill that will help in the current project of study).

Through projects children can engage in mathematical activities in meaningful and authentic ways. One of the benefits of of following an emergent curriculum is you can pursue unique ideas. For example, with a previous class I had two projects develop that directly focused on math concepts.

Other times we can directly tie in math related skills to childrens inquiry projects.

D) Outdoors

Outdoors is full of math related experiences. The picture above shows children exploring balance and weight. There a numerous examples of children exploring math concepts outside the classroom.

E) Daily Life

Observing children carefully is key. Often teachers turn off during times such as lunch or or mundane activities like brushing teeth. These are also educational moments. Below are two students laughing because they are "eating triangles" .

Two fantastic teachers in my kindergarten observed children discussing tooth paste flavors and tooth brush lengths during the post lunch teeth brushing. They continued to develop this interest using math concepts of measuring and graphing.

F) Special Classes

Special classes such as art are also ways math can be explored, particularly shapes. Exploring such math concepts along with other creative art elements is both natural and authentic.


I assume you may have some questions so let me try and pre-empt what they might be.

Q) Does that mean we don't need math class?

You don't need daily math classes in the early years. Certainly not daily whole group math classes. You will likely need math interventions from time to time. This simply means teaching a skill that will enhance the current level or interest of students. For example, if your students want to measure things you might want to teach them how to use and read a ruler. There is non standard measurements such as using shoes, blocks etc. but if your little ones are interested then giving them some guidance is needed.

Q) What you mean is have a math center and do more hands on activities right?

Not really. Having a math center is ok but if you just send kids to a math center in rotating groups your still treating math primarily like a single subject. The idea is to incorporate math into a variety of aspects of the day in practical and meaningful ways.

Q) So what you are saying is children learn math themselves so just relax and let it happen?

No! children engage and explore many concepts in their daily life and play. The key is to observe carefully what children do so we can take it further, always asking "what's next?" (see article below). Children pick up many pieces of knowledge and varying skills through their interactions with the world, people and their own observations but we still need to make visible these concepts and develop them in varying ways. By spreading math concepts across the day in different ways you are making visible the numerous ways we use math all the time in our lives.

Q) This seems much harder than just having a daily class. Is it really difficult?

It is more difficult than following a set script, worksheet or workbook. The reason is it's more difficult is your switching from teaching a subject/curriculum to teaching children. The good news is that working this way is like a muscle. The more you use it the better and stronger it gets and as a result becomes easier to apply in your daily teaching.

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