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Mathematics Through Play

— National Association for the Education of Young Children
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Everyday routines and play events offer rich opportunities for teaching your children about mathematics. Integrating math into all parts of the day multiplies the learning and gives your young children an understanding that math is part of everyday life.

During the early years of life, children play with concepts of size, number, shape, and quantity. They discover that objects exist, can be moved, and can be fitted together. As they acquire language, children begin to make statements indicating their knowledge of mathematical concepts. Their play and language form the basis for learning about math in natural ways, and one great way to integrate math involves hands-on activities and problem-solving situations that pique your children's curiosity.

For example, try constructing a math puzzle with three empty glasses. In the first glass, pour the milk up to the brim. Fill the second glass halfway, and leave the third glass empty. Then ask your children to identify which glass is empty, which is full, and which is one-half full.

Most preschool-aged children will understand the meaning of full, and will be able to identify the full glass of milk. Many young children will also understand the concepts of empty and more, but several may have trouble with half and less.

You can explore these same concepts through a grocery shopping game. Give your children plastic cups and containers of dried beans. Ask them to take three cups and to fill one cup full of beans, leave one cup empty, and fill the third cup with fewer beans than the full cup but more than the empty one. Through these repeated interactions and dialogue, your young children can learn some of the vocabulary and concepts that underlie mathematics such as equations, fractions and the notion of zero.

Measuring tapes or other measuring tools, whether in standard or nonstandard units, also create enjoyable learning activities. For example, your children can use them to measure blocks. They may also measure blocks using smaller blocks and then compare the results to see which block is longer or which is thicker.

Math concepts also make an appearance in many children's books, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Young children love to count the apples or pears the caterpillar eats before getting an upset stomach.

You can also consider computers and software programs that facilitate math learning. Encourage your children to work on the computers individually or together, but an adult should always be nearby to help them if they have any questions.

You can also involve math in cooking activities. With your help, your children can measure the number of spoons and the number of cups of ingredients indicated in the recipe.

Young children who learn number concepts and other mathematical knowledge through hands-on play activities and discussions gain a broad understanding of math skills. When you think of activities for your children, focus not just on having fun but also on creating a learning environment that stimulates and nurtures their inquisitive minds. These daily routines and play activities can give them a great start on thinking about and using mathematics.

Excerpted from "Integrating Mathematicians for Young Children Through Play" by Smita Guha - an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children.

Early Years Are Learning Years™ is a regular series from NAEYC providing tips to help parents and early childhood educators give young children a great start on learning.

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