Play. Unlike Maths, play was something we all loved. But if we take a moment to consider, right from the earliest of ages children are experiencing Maths through play. This has been recognised by educationalists worldwide and maths is now intrinsic to many Early Years curricula.
So how is Maths delivered in nursery and preschools? How does your child begin to learn maths, and just what exactly is maths for children under four?
We can step away from algebra.
In the world of the Early Years Education, maths is broken into developmentally appropriate targets and goals.
In the EYFS (the Early Years Foundation Stage), examples of Mathematics goals (for a four year old child) are:
• Numbers: children count reliably with numbers from 1 to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number; and
• Shape, space and measures: children use everyday language to talk about size, weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money to compare quantities and objects and to solve problems.
These goals do not have to be achieved via direct instruction. Children use maths throughout their daily routines – they might count steps or claps, or notice that sharing two toys leaves one each.
A good Nursery Teacher will use play and fun activities to amplify these natural observations.
There are many ways in which parents can gauge if your child’s nursery is delivering maths well, and many ways to support and extend your child’s learning at home.
So what would a math’s lesson in a nursery look like?
Let’s look at a typical lesson for two year olds and see what goes on.
Lesson Focus: Making Clay Caterpillars
Mathematics goals: comparing and measuring length and weights using caterpillars made with modelling dough, identifying colours
Resources: children provided with photos of caterpillars and modelling clay and ask to make their own caterpillar
Maths focussed questions to ask:
• What will you caterpillar be like? How much clay will you need?
• How will you make your caterpillar?
• Tell me about your caterpillar. How is your caterpillar similar to/different from…?
• Can you use blocks to make a chain the same length as your caterpillar?
• What colour is your caterpillar? How could you change the colour?
• Who has made the longest caterpillar? How do you know?
• Who has made the shortest caterpillar? How do you know?
• How would you make a heavier caterpillar? Or a lighter one?
So as your child giggles, squishes (and possibly eats or inserts in to their nose) the clay, they are acquiring mathematical language and reasoning. By gently questioning young children during a playful, yet focussed, activity Early Years workers can spark curiosity in the very youngest of children. Teachers should be making notes and detailed observations throughout each lesson, observations which will decide the content of subsequent lessons.
So, as parents, how do you know if your child is meeting expected levels in Maths? Or is under 5 really too early to worry about this anyway?
Regular updates and communication from your child’s nursery are essential here and your child’s teacher should be up to date with their setting’s curricula goals for each age group.
Question how Maths is embedded into your child’s day – how is maths made fun?
How is it included in a wide variety of activities?
How is progression encouraged and documented?
How often will you be updated?
Very rarely, a child may be identified as having dyscalculia, a learning difficulty which affects the normal development of mathematical skills.
Whilst it is unusual for a very young child to be diagnosed with dyscalculia, the signs may be somewhat apparent by age four.
Some educationalists believe that early identification and treatment for dyscalculia could improve mathematical attainment later in life. Parents who suspect their child have difficulty with maths should explore the issue with their child’s Nursery Teacher and Paediatrician in the first instance.
With all that said, it is important to remember that, especially in the early years, it is rare for a child’s progression to fall exactly in line with guidelines and goals. What is more important to establish during your child’s nursery career is mathematical confidence. Children who feel at ease with mathematical vocabulary, with counting, shapes, measures, patterns and numerals have established a great grounding for their future education.