Early Numeracy – Basic Math Concepts

Children learn important math skills through their play and routines, and need to experience a lot of doing and saying, using concrete materials that they can manipulate to learn math in the early years.

Young children develop early math skills in a variety of areas, including problem solving and reasoning, number concepts, geometry and spatial sense, measurement, and patterns & relationships.

When children learn basic math concepts early on, they generally have more positive attitudes and way more confidence with mathematics later in school. Since problem solving is key to being able to do all other aspects of mathematics, we need to be sure to provide plenty of opportunities for problem solving, and not be too quick to help when they can figure things out for themselves.

This page is all about Early Numeracy and Learning Math Through Play. I’ll talk about basic math concepts and give ideas for activities and materials you can use in your family child care curriculum and environments to help the children learn these math concepts while playing and having fun through daily experiences, activities and routines.
Basic Math Concepts
  • Numbers and Operations
  • Geometry
  • Measurement
  • Patterns
  • Collecting and Organizing

Learning About Numbers and Operations

As stated earlier, children learn important math skills through their play and routines, and need to experience a lot of doing and saying, using concrete materials that they can manipulate, not through rote or memorization.

Numbers and Operations include:

  • Counting
  • one-on-one correspondence
  • How many?
  • More / less
  • Rank order – (first, second, third)
  • Recognizing numerals
  • Grouping
  • Fractions as part of the whole (half, one-fourth)

Some of the things we can do to help children learn about using numbers and operations are:

  • Promote the concept of one-to-one correspondence through kinesthetic learning – Letting the child combine the assignment of each number word with the physical act of either moving, touching with a finger, or at least pointing at the object it represents.
  • Provide activities that allow the child to easily see and physically deal with objects.
  • Use comparison words
  • Read books about numbers and counting- extend the learning with related activities and materials
  • Use words that indicate order (first, second, third)
  • Encourage children to compare quantities
  • countingProvide plenty of materials with numerals alongside the number written out and corresponding objects that add up to the number
  • Add telephones, menus, money and other items with numbers on them to your dramatic area
  • Talk about prices, addresses and the time
  • Invite the children to group or sort objects and materials during art, science or other activities and routines
  • Talk about fractions and demonstrate examples throughout the day (cooking with children and mealtimes are perfect opportunities)
  • Sing songs and fingerplays that include numbers
  • Use numbers as you talk with children about what they are doing
  • Play board games
  • When children are counting, we can encourage him / her to:

    • Recite the sequence of counting words up to the required number and in the correct order.
    • Assign a number word for each object and avoid repeating or assigning the same number word for two or more objects.
    • Begin over time to establish the understanding that the final number word counted for a set of objects represents the total number of objects.

Learning About Geometry In Family Child Care

signsAlmost any family child care provider I talk to will tell me they work with the children, helping them to learn their shapes and colors. That’s great. But, what does that mean? What are the children really learning?

To be competitive, and to sell their programs as equals to center based programs, family child care providers need to do a better job at talking about what the children are learning in family child care. For example, when you are out on a walk with the children and talk to them about the fact that the traffic signs in the neighborhood come in all different shapes and sizes, you are working on a basic math concept – Geometry!

Shapes are everywhere in our natural environment. We know children learn through play and everyday activities and experiences. I cannot think of a better place for kids to learn about geometry than in their own home… or a family child care setting.

Geometry is learning about shapes and space and includes the following elements:

  • Shape
  • Size
  • Position in space
  • Direction
  • Movement
  • Spatial relations

To help children to understand these concepts, you can do and say the following:
• Include toys and materials with different shapes and talk about what they are called and
the elements of different shapes
• Have children cut items into shapes (paper, food, etc)
• Provide nesting toys and other materials that fit into each other
• Play shape themed games (treasure hunt, etc)
• Provide large cardboard boxes for the children to crawl in and out of
• Use positional words (in, next, over, under)
• Play body games (pat-a-cake, little piggy)

children measuring each otherMeasurement is another basic math concept. Measurement is:
  • Describing how long, tall, heavy, big something is
  • How long something takes
  • How much space something takes up
  • Comparing objects
  • Choosing and using tools for measuring

To help children to understand these concepts, you can do and say the following:
• Provide standard measuring tools like rulers, clocks, tape measures, measuring cups and spoons, string or other materials such as ribbons, etc…
• Provide nesting toys and other materials that fit into each other
• Use measurement words and talk about relative amounts
• Encourage children to compare
• Invite children to estimate things
• Make picture and word recipes for children to follow

Patterns are everywhere

A pattern is objects, events or sounds that are repeated a number of times in a particular order. Children learn to spot patterns and recognize the relationship among parts.

To help children with patterns, you can do and say:
• Sing repetitive songs
• Follow consistent routines
• Talk about events
• Read books with predictable language
• Point out patterns
• Provide toys and materials children can use to make patterns -Rhythm Sticks are one of my favorites!
• Make a pattern and ask children to keep it going

There is a great article from NAEYC called The Patterns of Music -Young Children Learning Mathematics through Beat, Rhythm, and Melody that includes Tips for Using Music to Engage Children in Mathematics.

Collecting and Organizing in Mathematics

Collecting and Organizing in mathematics includes:

  • Recognizing how objects are the same and different
  • Separating objects into groups by features (size, color, shape..)
  • Presenting information using objects, drawings, pictures charts or graphs
  • Describing information by using words like fewer, more, smaller than or not

To help children with Collecting and Organizing, you can do and say:
• Provide toys young children can fit together
• Offer materials they can use to create charts or graphs – for example: For young children, sorting and organizing stickers by shape, color, picture, theme, etc. on a sheet of construction paper is a simple but fun activity
• Display toys on shelves and in containers labeled with a picture word and explain how you organized them, and why
• Point out how children organize things
• Provide collections that children can organize in different ways

Incorporating Math Activities Into Daily Routines and Experiences

I’m guessing you are already doing many of these.

  • Hellos and Good-Byes
    • Point out the time on the clock and talk about what time Mom or Dad is coming back
    • Match and/ or sort socks, shoes or even mittens upon arrivals, or to get ready to go outside or at the end of the day
    • Blow ____ number of kisses bye-bye
    • Let the children sign in and out on their own sign in sheets (Children love this and will remind Mom or Dad. It also promotes early literacy and writing skills!)
  • Mealtimes
    • Set the table –match plates, etc to shapes drawn on table – you could use tape to draw the shapes or have paper place settings with the shapes drawn on them
    • Count how many settings
    • Sort – silverware, cups, ec.
    • Compare – Big /Little – plates, cups, bowls…
    • Match -silverware, plates, cups…
    • Shapes- plates cups and bowls are circles, napkins are squares, etc..
    • Set up a pattern – with dishes or even food (my kids loved to do this with fruit snacks)
  • Diapering and Toileting
    • Count fingers and toes
    • Count while washing hands
  • Sleeping and Resting
    • Count how many children – so how many cots do we need?
    • Sort blankets and sheets
    • Match teddy bears to nappers
    • Count sheep
    • Read a book on counting

Putting Math into Daily activities
  • Play clean up games that involve sorting by shape, size or color
  • Add telephones, menus, money and other items with numbers on them to your dramatic area
  • Talk about prices, addresses and the time
  • Use comparison and sorting in art activities
  • Provide empty containers of various shapes for making sculptures and other creations
  • Provide measuring cups and spoons as well as containers in many sizes for sand and water play
  • Include books about number concepts in your reading area
  • Play percussion games that emphasize patterns
  • Use a timer for games or cooking
  • Have children look for natural patterns in nature
  • Have children collect items for sorting and classifying

What are some other activities you do that you can share with other providers to promote early numeracy?

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