Recognising 'numbers' is important, but I will stick my neck out and say it is NOT maths and it doesn't really help young children understand numbers!
My mum - a research chemist turned long time playgroup leader - has helped me to see that a pre-school child who can count to 10 is ready to explore - and have great fun with - really interesting maths questions such as:
How many more than?
How many less than?
How many all together?
How many if we take some away?
How many each if we share them out?
How many left over if we share them out? ...
and young children can master these 'sums' without actually recognising a single numeral!
There are lots of different ways for kids to have fun with these questions but simple squared charts are probably the easiest way to get started. Children can sort real life, interesting objects into sets either by colouring in the squares or actually placing objects on squares drawn on a big piece of lining or butcher's paper or if you've got big tiles on a ready made graph on the kitchen floor!
Once they've collected and sorted the objects, children can have lots of fun:
Counting how many in each row
Seeing which row is the longest and which the shortest (aka who won!)
Seeing which rows are the same
Counting how many more in one row than another
Counting how many left if we take some objects off the chart
Cutting the chart up, putting rows together and counting how many now
You can use charts with loads of everyday 'stuff' but here are a few ideas we've had fun with ...
Colour Hunt - Each person runs - against the clock - to find as many items as possible of a particular colour. Lay out all the objects in colour rows on a big chart to see who has won.
Letter Hunt - Like the colour hunt but if children can recognise starting letters of words they can have a competition to see who can find the most objects that start with the first letter of their name.
Freestyle Scavenger Hunt - In the park, the wood, at the beach, in the garden pick up anything you find that's interesting - twigs, stones, leaves, fir cones, flowers, shells, feathers. Sort them when you get back and lay them out on your big chart, to see what you found the most of.
Snail Hunt - Go out just before bed time and see who can collect the most snails in 5 minutes! Have Life With Moore Babies fun trying to line them up and count them on your graph paper without them escaping and then deposit as far away from your garden as you can.
Bird Watch in the Garden - See how many birds of different kinds come to the garden; change what or how much you feed the birds and start a new graph to compare before and after ideas.
Spring Bird Watch in the Park - Chart the growth in the wild fowl population in the local park as the chicks start to hatch - although, our efforts with this have proved a bit traumatic as we witnessed the heron (also now known as "monster") devour two Coot chicks right in front of us.
Vehicle Bingo - Great for long car or train journeys. Have rows for different types of vehicle - lorries, buses, bicycles - colour a square each time you seen one & see who wins.
Brick Sort - Tip out all your bricks on the floor and sort into colour rows. You could adapt this for any large collection of toys you have. Life With Moore Babies has a lovely example of doing this with a car collection.
Lego Sort - Tip out all your different types of lego and sort based on the number of dots. The fact that the dots may be organised in different shapes - four dots could be in a rectangle or a square - really helps children with the idea of number persistence.
Reward Charts - If you use reward charts in any way, there are all sorts of opportunities for talking about how many stickers they want, how many they have got, how many more do they need to get.
If your child is interested in the numerals you can obviously build these into the activity but absolutely don't worry if they are not. Lots and lots of hands-on manipulation of real quantities gives children an amazing foundation in maths for later years.
Trying to multi-task my way through motherhood without the wheels coming off ...
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