Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Let's Talk About Math!

As educators we know the importance of literacy and embedding language or new vocabulary into our lessons or everyday interactions with young children. We tend to focus on this in the early years of life, sometimes very naturally!

So why does it differ when it comes to mathematics?
Why don't we as naturally draw out or highlight the mathematics happening in conversations, the everyday interactions and our play?

Before studying some of Douglas Clements research a few years back, we neglected to truly understand the depth of early mathematics and how complex the idea of understanding 0-10 actually is! We often assumed that if children could count to 10, they understood what they were doing and we would challenge them to count higher instead of talking with them about what 5 means.

One of our children actually asked us once "What grade will we do math in?". That was a huge moment for us to step back and recognize that we as educators had not been as intentional and clear about mathematics in our daily interactions as we could have been.

We assume that when we do an activity or play a game with young children that they understand that it is math based. But without explicit language and direction, the mathematics can be lost or unrecognized.

So... how do we engage with math? How can we get children talking about it?

We try to focus our small and large group meeting times on opportunities to TALK about mathematics - perhaps while actively engaged in a game or maybe by simply looking at a picture and reflecting on what mathematics we are seeing.

Talking about mathematics may spark an interest in mathematics for young children, decreased math anxiety, supports language development, deeper thinking, new perspectives, and a chance to highlight different ways of seeing and thinking about mathematics.

Some ways that you can TALK about mathematics in play and daily interactions:

  • Look for and notice numbers in the environment (on signs, clocks, cars, houses, posters)
  • Provide opportunities to count objects in genuine ways: snacks, materials needed for art
  • Describe and notice shapes in the environment: when tidying or playing with blocks ("can you pass me the semicircle?"), when drawing, on signs, in the community
  • Use directional language: in games, during play
  • Measure in genuine ways: a great way to engage with measurement is through cooking or baking together, make play dough, provide measurement tools in sensory bins or building areas
  • Small Group Games: be sure to highlight and discuss what mathematics the children notice in the games (you may have to model at first)

A great way to engage in mathematical conversations with children is through activities like Which One Doesn't Belong. There is a book that we purchased to introduce this idea, but it isn't necessary in order to engage. There is also a great website ( with lots of examples to get you started.

Essentially, a grid with 4 images is shown and the children have to explain which quadrant doesn't belong and WHY. 

The beautiful part about this activity is that there are NO wrong or right answers. All ideas are valued and questioned by other children and educators.

Using prompts like:
Tell me more.
What makes you think that?
How do you know that?
What did you see that gave you a clue?
Where else have you seen that before?

We did find that it took a few sessions before the children understood the concept of the activity, but with lots of modelling and guidance it has become something that we have done with not only "obvious" mathematics (such as shapes, numbers) but also with objects in the outdoors (see photo below).

Another way that we have engaged children in talking about mathematics in both small and large groups is by simply showing them a picture or photograph and asking: 

What math do you see?

If you project the image onto a whiteboard, you are able to circle and record some of the children's thinking. Again, similar to Which One Doesn't Belong, we did a lot of modelling and asking of questions to get this discussion started.

Using prompts like:
Do you see any patterns?
What sizes do you notice?
Do you recognize any shapes?
Do you see any examples of more or less?
How many _____?

Tana Hoban books have beautiful wordless photographs that provide endless opportunities for discussion about mathematics! You can find photographs online, or even take them yourself!

 By encouraging our children to talk about mathematics, we have noticed that they are more confident, engaged and excited to try new things and they truly see themselves as mathematicians! Talking about mathematics also provides children to understand that math is NOT about always being right or wrong or having only ONE SOLUTION. So important if we want to inspire children to love mathematics and embrace it as they move through their schooling journey!

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