Author: Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor
I’ll level with you: whenever I think about maths, my heart sinks and a sort of cold leaden feeling settles in the pit of my stomach. When I bid goodbye to maths after my GCSEs, I felt nothing short of relief. It was a bit of a shocker when a few years later, I learned that in order to be an English teacher in the UK, one had to pass maths tests. In desperation and filled with fear that I would not qualify, I turned to my friend who, as it happened, was training to be a maths teacher. Even as she tutored me, and made me both cups of tea and offered cake at consoling intervals, I stared at her with a mixture of both shock and awe. There were people out there – nice people, good people, who not only voluntarily studied maths but actually liked it?
Yeah, there were.
They were, in my opinion, unicorns.
I remember that moment clearly. What I also remember was this feeling of conviction that if I ever went onto have children, I would not endow them with my abject of fear of numbers. Not if I could help it.
Fast forward a few (okay, many) years and the arrival of children and once the dust had died down, I remembered my promise to myself. That’s when early numeracy skills came in to play.
I was thoroughly pleased to learn that early numeracy was not traditional maths. Phew! I would not be having to teach my preschooler addition, subtraction, multiplication or division. Early numeracy, I learned, was about being able to apply mathematical concepts to various areas in life. Numerate skills include sorting and categorising. They do, of course, include number recognition but they also include talking about shapes and discussions about sizes.
Crucially, early numeracy skills can be developed without additional costs or while keeping costs down. Chances are that almost all of us have things to hand at home that we can use, or we can forage for them. If you have ever spent time around young children, you will know how easy it is to return home after a walk filled with sticks, stones, crumbling leaves and squashed daisies. Why not put them to good use?
Here are five ideas we have used at home to build early numeracy skills.
1. Discovery Bag
Take an old bag and fill it with: a ruler; a measuring cup or glass; a magnifying glass; a notebook ;a pencil. Invite your child to measure ‘how much’. They could busy themselves measuring out cups of water, cups of rice, cups of daal…
They could measure the distances between things or how long and short things are with their ruler. Have they collected leaves? How long are the leaves? How wide are they? Invite them to look closely at the sticks, stones, flowers, weeds, leaves and conkers that they have collected.
Ask them to ‘record’ their observations in a notebook. You could ask them to do a leaf rubbing (place the leaf under the page and then rub a crayon over the page so that your child picks out the impressions). They could measure the leaves, they can measure the rubbing.
If your child is discovering early numeracy, it is very likely that they can’t read, recognise or write in the traditional academic sense. They will scribble in their notebook. And that is okay. In fact, it’s what we want. If they tell you that a squiggle is the number 7, believe them. You may wish to ‘translate’ their scribble into a number. If they tell you that a stick is 10,000m long, believe them then as well. Write it down. There will soon come a time when they will recognise numbers and they will count serially. The discovery bag is not about reinforcing number recognition. It is about laying the foundations for using the tools that they will later go on to use for maths.
2. Out and About
I have always harboured a little dread for textbooks for young or very young children. Textbooks ask them to trace, write on the line and have rather narrow margins determining what is acceptable or not. Flash cards, to be honest, bore me. I can’t make myself feel excited about them so how I can I make my kids feel engaged?
With this in mind, we have always worked on learning numbers serially by counting stairs and counting steps.
We have worked on number recognition by studying bus and tram numbers as they arrive and depart from the stops. The numbers inscribed on parking places also serve this purpose as do house numbers or indeed, any where that numbers abound, I’ve made use of them. Working on numbers has thus felt less like a chore and more like a cross between an ‘I Spy/treasure hunt’ activity. On a very personal note, it has also helped me, as a maths-fearing mother, to keep my own dear at bay, it has removed the stress of sitting down at a table with a pencil and rubber.
3. What do numbers mean?
We count everything. We count fingers and toes. We count toys. We count plates when I ask the children to lay the table, count out the cutlery and so on and so forth. We count cars when we are on the road. When we go rambling, we collect all sorts of natural treasures and count them too.
There are, of course, all sorts of manipulatives that you can purchase to help with this skill. For example, I love linking cubes but you don’t need to wait for linking cubes. It’s very likely that you have access to leaves and flowers as well as LEGO Duplo.
Simply write a number on a piece of paper and ask your child to arrange the corresponding number of loose materials on top of it or next to it.
4. Puzzling through
Recognition and categorization are key maths skills. A little visit to the toy section at Migros will leave you spoilt for choice when it comes to store brought resources which will help you work on these skills with your child.
However, once again, you probably have all the resources that you need at home. And by this juncture of your parenting journey, you’ve probably figured out that non-toy-toys are the most appealing of all!
You can very quickly make some puzzles yourself which will reinforce those all-important categorization and recognition skills.
What do you need to do? Rescue some cardboard from the recycling bin. Something like a cereal box or a pizza box will do. Grab a few of your household utensils. Some spoons perhaps? A strainer? Some bottle caps? Straws? Forks? Anything goes as long as it is not potentially harmful! Draw around them and then invite your child to place the corresponding objects on the outlines.
You can repeat this with their toys, leaves, shells, stones…Once you train your eye to look for loose parts, you will find that they are everywhere.
Your recycling box is your friend. Did you know that’s there’s so much that you can do with the humble egg carton?
The different compartments of an egg carton are very useful for sorting different objects from each other. After a nature walk, you can ask your child to place things into the different categories, grouping for size, colour and shape.
5. Telling the time
You can buy or make a daily routine chart and use it to reinforce all the ‘time talk’ that inevitably goes on in a family home.
Buy a plain wall clock (the classic IKEA variety) and stick stickers on to represent different activities which take place at different times of the day. You can refer back to the clock each time you need to do something. For example, ‘wake up! It’s 7’o clock!’ or ‘It’s 12’o clock, time for lunch’ etc etc
Remember the childhood game, ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’ Well, it’s time to dig up those memories and relive them again!
More ideas to further early numeracy at home
1. Involve your child in cooking. Ask them to measure, sift and pour.
2. Play board games together, counting out the spaces and movements for the counter.
3. Play card games like Snap! or Uno! where recognition and matching skills are required.
4. Ask your child to share snacks equally with their siblings, family and friends.
5. Read books! Books such as ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle or ‘Spinderella’ by Julia Donaldson reinforce early numerate skills in a fun and pleasing way.
6. Ask your child to arrange their toys in terms of size. Invite them to group their toys by colour or even, by what they do.
7. Sing and dance at different speeds. A rhyme like ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ works really well for something like this. Begin slowly, then go faster and faster. My children love ‘super turbo rocket speed’!
8. Have your child organise a race for their toys cars. Ask them who came first, second or third. You’ll find that they pick up on ordinal numbers very easily when the teaching moments are built into daily life.
Why is this important?
Why is any of this important? Why don’t we just leave it to school?
Well, the world is a numerate world and we are all just living in it, to paraphrase a rather famous song. We need numeracy to help us solve problems, analyse information and comprehend it, understand patterns and make choices. Children are born to learn and by helping them along in their journey in gentle ways which do not overwhelm them; we can help them to appreciate the role that numeracy plays in all our lives. We can help them sidestep the traditional fear that comes with maths. We can teach them that maths is fun and in fact, rather wonderful.
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