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Number Sense

Ten years ago, I was working in an Early Childhood Center for Nursery to Grade Two, and had the chance to really get to know what engaging, appropriate math looks like through that span. Not surprisingly, kids can be excited about math when they have lots of hands-on play, and lots of opportunities to apply math in real situations. I learned that math can be joyful (which wasn’t my experience growing up!) but the key is a strong foundation in trying math on for size.


Math is a pretty broad term: we’re talking about counting and a symbol system and measurement and patterns and shapes: oh my! In order to be most developmentally appropriate, right now, I’m offering explorations and activities where I can learn where we are as a group so we can build on a solid foundation. Our first step: number sense.


Number sense is NOT about recognizing numerals. I know some children recognize some numerals already, which is not a bad thing, of course. But those numerals may not be attached to the concept of quantity, and that different numbers (that we say out loud more often than children explore the written numeral) represent a group of items. Before counting, even, kids are exposed to these numbers as standalone things: 8 kids in class today, 3 owl babies, 4 chairs at the table.


More and Less


We began embedding math more intentionally in the classroom, beginning with the words more and less. Which tray has more blocks? The groups of items on the trays at our group time, when we did this math activity, was intentionally low enough that we could also count the items together to double check. We used the word more a lot: that word is easier for kids to grasp because they hear it and experience it more (ha!). As we continue in this pre-counting, number sense exploration next week, we’ll pepper in the word less, and pairing it with more will help develop that dichotomy.


At home, this is an easy thing for you to support! Simply use the words more and less in context. There are more cars in the parking lot than yesterday! There are less kids at the park than last time. Yesterday you wanted 5 strawberries, today you wanted less, you wanted 3. Would you like one more pancake? We say these words all the time (and you’ll notice the prevalence of more when you pay attention to it).


One to One Correspondence


“How many are there?” This is an invitation to count individual items.


After more and less (which we’ll continue to say and emphasize) the next step on our foundational math journey is one-to-one correspondence. This is simply the knowledge that when we are counting items, each one gets its own number label, and we say them in order. So, if there are three plates on the table, we can ask, “how many are there?” and touch/point to each one as we say a number: one, two, three. There are three. Each plate gets its own number label. We do this in class all the time, counting kids and bottle caps and ping pong balls. This is something you can find opportunities for throughout your day, too.


It’s important for us, as adults, to understand that kids are all over the place on this math journey. We have a range of ages in our morning and afternoon classes, and it does not matter if your child is not grasping these concepts yet: that’s what our playful math activities are for! And some children can glance at a group of four items and say there are four without needing to count everything. It is still valuable to count items individually. You might ask your child to tell you how many items there are after they count them (one, two three) and they may count them individually again: that’s also totally appropriate! The idea that one number represents a set is another step up in our math journey, and we’ll be there soon.


One way we will practice both more and less and one-to-one correspondence is through book votes. Some days, I’ll bring two read aloud choices to our circle, and each child votes on which book we should read. I use a physical item for each vote and place it on the book as the child votes. At the end we count up the votes by touching each item and counting aloud; and then we read the book with MORE votes. We save the other book for later. We’ll vote on other small things, too, always making sure to include the second place choice in another part of the day or week: losing an election can be emotional!


Early Childhood is a time to play with math, get joy from it, and get a rock solid foundation in the basics. And if children have shown they can do something (demonstrated one-to-one counting, for example), that doesn’t mean we’ll rush through a math curriculum onto the next thing. We’ll keep practicing with new materials, in new situations, and applying that knowledge. This strong base comes in very handy when math gets more abstract, and there is curricular content to push through.




 

Resources:


NZ Maths https://nzmaths.co.nz/number-early-learning-progression


Teaching Mathy Minds on TikTok https://www.tiktok.com/@buildingmathyminds



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