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Mathematics: How do we help children see beyond numbers?

22 October, 2022
Fostering a story of friendship with mathematics at an early age can give children a greater chance of being enthusiastic about the subject throughout their school years.

Mathematical concepts for emotional stimulation

It's not new, but mathematics stimulates children's cognitive development - their brain cells experience physical changes by creating connections highlighted by mathematical methodologies. Early mathematical concepts such as shapes and numbers will stimulate a child's emotional and social development. 

Encouraging your child with mathematical challenges, exercises and introducing good habit and routine will set up well in the teenage years when routine is truly necessary for growth and maturation as an adult. Like brushing teeth twice a day, a good math routine delays or stops the early onset of mental decay for our growing children.

Mathematics: skills and their necessity 

Researchers such as Diezmann, Yelland, Fromboluti and Rinck believe that advanced mathematical skills are based on an early mathematical 'foundation' - just as a house is built on a strong foundation. In the early years, you can help your child begin to develop early math skills by introducing ideas such as: 

This is the skill that also relates to counting accurately. A more complex skill related to number sense is the ability to see relationships between numbers - such as addition and subtraction, later on more complex operations. 

Realising 'real' mathematical ideas using words, pictures, symbols and objects. It is very important to train this skill from an early age, not just with textbook exercises. For example, when preparing the meal, you could ask your child to lay out the cutlery and plates themselves, trying to work out how many they need, just by relating the number of members in the family.

Spatial sense
Later, at school, children will call this 'geometry'. But for young children it's about introducing the ideas of shape, size, space, position, direction and movement, and there are games for children from the youngest ages, games where they have to put each toy into the box in the right shape for each one. 

Technically, this is finding the length, height and weight of an object using units of measurement. Measuring time (in minutes, for example) also falls into this skill area. So just by talking to your child about the clock, practising learning to tell the time or manage small amounts of money, we encourage the formation of a confident mathematical foundation.

This is the ability to make a good guess about the quantity or size of something. This is very difficult for young children to do. You can help them by showing them the meaning of words like more, less, bigger, smaller, more than, less than. 

Patterns are things - numbers, shapes, pictures - that repeat themselves in a logical way. Patterns help children learn to make predictions, understand what is coming next, make logical connections and use reasoning skills. It sounds like something that is only practised in the early years of school, but it's not necessarily so. We can stimulate these skills just by talking about the natural cycle of nature, how the sun rises in the morning, then sets in the evening when the moon appears. It's the kind of model that will help your child make logical predictions from an early age.

Problem solving
The ability to think through a problem, to recognise that there are several ways to reach an answer means using prior knowledge and logical thinking skills to find an answer. Try to involve your child in age-appropriate problem-type situations by suggesting they help you. 

Maths and technology

Integrating digital technologies into children's activities can increase their interest in maths and science, and recent analyses show that the use of these technologies has a positive effect on student achievement in these subjects.

These are the findings of the Eurydice report on the teaching of maths and science in European schools, which shows that digital technologies are integrated into the teaching of these subjects in most European countries.
The research results highlight the importance of allocating sufficient instructional time, providing timely learning support, ensuring specialised teacher training and systematic monitoring of student outcomes. Numerous examples are given of how mathematics and science curricula can foster reflection and relate to pupils' lives.

Also in this study are some examples of good practice:

        • Pupils in Denmark at the end of grade 3 should know how to use digital tools for studying mathematics, for simple drawings or for calculations.
        • In Spain, the curriculum for 7th and 8th grade mathematics recommends that pupils choose the appropriate technological tools to carry out different types of calculations.
        • In the Netherlands, in mathematics taught in grades 7 and 8, digital tools are seen as supporting tools, a source of information and a means of communication.
        • In Norway, the mathematics curriculum for grades 1-10 includes digital competences among the five basic competences targeted in education.
        • In Cyprus, the use of technology as a tool to support teaching and learning is one of the objectives of the mathematics curriculum.
        • In Finland, in grades VII-IX, a key content for teaching mathematics states that pupils should use their own computer programs as part of the learning process.

          Suggestions for parents

When it comes to developing children's math skills, Harvard researchers offer the following suggestions:

Read books that highlight math topics. Herb Ginsburg of Teachers College, Columbia University, stresses the importance of reading books with math themes together. While reading, parents can ask questions that prompt children to count, identify shapes and explain different situations. Teachers and library staff are resource people to talk to about math books and digital media, and many libraries offer storytimes and play activities with math content.  

Let kids wrestle with math questions and deduce their own solutions. Laura Overdeck, founder of Bedtime Math, reminds families that sometimes it's good to let kids struggle with math problems. Students of all ages need time to figure out the right answers. Don't offer solutions right away. She also reminds parents to be careful how they talk about math. It's important to avoid saying that you didn't like it during school or that you weren't good enough.

Create contexts for mathematical discussions. Taniesha Woods, co-editor of Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood, points out that families are able to talk about quantity, counting and shapes wherever children and families are - at home, at the park or at the grocery store. For example, when eating cookies, count how many you have, talk about their shape.
So, these simple interactions and early learning activities at home and in the early years of school and kindergarten lay the foundation for a child's healthy relationship with math. Fostering a story of friendship with mathematics at an early age can give children a greater chance of being excited about the subject throughout their school years. Talk to your child about how much maths helps us, how many interesting things we can do and think through it, and how fun it can sometimes be.

Suggestions for educators

Communicate with parents about developmentally appropriate math content and pedagogy. Experts recommend offering parents a variety of fun and engaging ways to learn about math content and pedagogy - especially when teaching math seems different from the experience most adults had when they were in school. For example, give children a math-related lesson to share with family members or a math game to play with others at home. As smartphones have become almost ubiquitous, teachers can also send parents video clips of classroom math activities via the school management app, SMS or email.  

Guide families in using digital and real-world activities with a focus on math activities. The PBS KIDS website offers children and families free digital games, hands-on activities and videos with a mathematical theme. WestEd's Betsy McCarthy explains that when preschool teachers trained parents on how to use these tools and encouraged families and children to make time to use them together, children's math knowledge and skills improved and parents' awareness and support of their children's math learning increased.

Understand how families use maths in everyday life. Marta Civil and Diane Kinch of TODOS: Mathematics for ALL help teachers understand that mathematics is an activity that exists both in and out of school. They recommend informal meetings where groups of families and teachers can discuss the content of math problems and the reasoning behind how they solve them. Teachers can also invite parents into their classrooms and ask family members to share their personal experiences of using maths in everyday life. Based on these shared experiences, the teacher can bring in problems and exercises tailored to children's lives.

Encourage teamwork in maths lessons. We often think that to work on a maths problem or exercise, we need to be alone, in silence. This is not always the case, and it can be more interesting for children to exchange ideas and solutions with their teammates. Solving different mathematical problems as a team can bring great benefit, both in terms of group cohesion and the good feeling that is created. 
So these simple interactions and early learning activities at home and in the early years of school and kindergarten lay the foundations for a healthy relationship between the child and mathematics. Talk to your child about how much maths helps us, how many interesting things we can do and think through it, and how fun it can sometimes be.



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