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Simple ways to teach math in the ECE classroom

If you've ever walked in the woods with toddlers or preschoolers, you've likely noticed them engaging with their environment - comparing rocks, rolling pine needles between their fingers, and stopping to smell the flowers. While an adult would likely pay no attention to rocks on the ground, toddlers might very well stop in their tracks to take a look at how the colors, shapes, sizes, and textures vary. 

Young children are generally eager to explore the objects they stumble across as they go about their day. Knowing this, ECE teachers can facilitate hands-on learning experiences that help students develop rudimentary math skills and understanding that will serve as building blocks for more complex concepts down the road.

There are a multitude of ways to incorporate math in your toddler or preschool curriculum. Here are some methods to try:

Bring nature indoors
Rocks, pinecones, leaves, and flowers are obvious science teaching tools, but many educators don't realize that objects from nature can be used for math activities as well.

When it's not possible to bring preschoolers outdoors, bring objects from nature inside.When it's not possible to bring preschoolers outdoors, bring objects from nature inside.

According to Professor Emerita Lilian Katz, early learners fare best when they engage in explorative play that satisfies their desire to analyze, hypothesize, and predict. The Boston Children's Museum's STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide recommends asking "what" questions - they build kids' observation and communication skills - and avoiding "why" questions as they indicate to the child that there is only one correct answer.

What does this look like in practice? You could present an ant farm and ask the children a number of "what" questions to facilitate discussion:

  • "What do the ants look like?" (analyze)
  • "What do you think the ants are doing?" (hypothesize)
  • "What might happen if we put a small dish of water inside?" (predict)

In observing the ants (or seashells, seeds, bugs, leaves, etc.), children explore concepts like shape, size, and movement, which may later help them understand geometry, according to Zero to Three.

Play with your food
There are a multitude of math skills you can address through food. Check out these food-based activities:

Lunch time is the perfect time for teaching ECE math skills like number sense, measurement and estimation.Lunch time is the perfect time for teaching ECE math skills like number sense, measurement, and estimation. 

To teach spatial sense: Have an indoor picnic! Lay a square blanket on the floor and talk about its square shape. Invite children to find other square-shaped items in the room. Consider serving round and square crackers, and comparing them side-by-side while asking open-ended questions like, "What do you notice when you look at these crackers?"

To teach measurement and estimation: Zero to Three recommends using yarn, paper or ribbon, however, strands of cooked spaghetti work just as well! Cut several pieces of spaghetti in different lengths and lay them flat. Introduce vocabulary words like "long" and "short." Have children arrange the strands from shortest to longest.

To teach number sense: Ask for help in distributing napkins or cookies - one item per person. Zero to Three explains that doing this helps young ones learn one-to-one correspondence. You could also ask children to distribute three carrots to each person while saying, "One for Jack, one for Jill ... "

Would you like to learn more about teaching math in your classroom? Consider taking ProSolutions Training's course "Ignite Their Minds: Making Math an Integral Part of your Teaching."

Create a ProSolutions Training account today!