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Play and Exploration : Early Years : Mathematics-specific Pedagogy

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1. How confident are you that you provide opportunities for children to learn mathematics through play and exploration?

a. Learning through experience


Provision of good quality play is important, as in play children rehearse and refine maths skills and understanding. Play situations can also provide a context for using maths vocabulary that makes sense to a child and helps understanding. Many traditional songs, finger plays and rhymes contain themes that focus on maths vocabulary. Children with English as an additional language or those with language delay will benefit from pictures, models and pantomime to accompany the songs. Children need to be given time to fully explore the activities they are involved in and not be rushed to finish, nor should the focus to be on the finished product. Building a house with bricks takes time and provides a rich mathematical learning experience: discovering which shape bricks fit together, how to make a space in the wall to represent a window, figuring out how to overlap the bricks to make a corner and estimating whether there are enough bricks to complete the building. By comparison with building it, colouring in a picture of a house is much faster but the learning a much poorer experience.

An important experience is becoming familiar with and using mathematical vocabulary. Children’s mathematical vocabulary is enhanced when the adults who are working alongside them:

  • repeat key words in context during play activities;
  • model using new words in commentary;
  • encourage children to use new words through open-ended questioning;
  • invite children to describe what they see, hear or think.

The following maths words should be used regularly in children’s play so that they have a context in which to interpret them.

Comparing words
small and large, tall and short, fast and slow, heavy and light, hot and cold, high and low, near and far, young and old
It is helpful for children to see differences and a variety of properties in objects and situations. These must all be first-hand experiences such as comparing weight by handling objects and comparing height or speed through outdoor climbing or running activities.

Positional words
in, out, next to, behind, in front of, over, under, between, round, through
Children need a range of positional words if they are to explore shape and space meaningfully. Again these words need to be used during active learning using construction materials or playing hide and seek games.

Directional words
forward, backward, up, down, left, right, straight on
Any outdoor activity uses directional words especially if using wheeled vehicles or programmable toys.

Ordinal words
first, last, second, third, in front of, end, beginning, before, after
These words give children ways of describing order and sequence. Opportunities occur during activities that include lining up objects such as small cars, farm animals and counters.

Shape words
round, curved, wavy, straight, sloping, corners, pointed, sides, flat, circle, square, triangle
Children will gradually get to know names of shapes, but more importantly they need to know words that help them describe the shapes of things.

Calculating words
more, less, the same, many, lots, fewer, greater than, more than, less than
Children’s first understanding of ‘calculating’ will be the vocabulary of more and less, and the language of increasing and diminishing quantities.

Time words
today, tomorrow, yesterday, morning, afternoon, night, the days of the week
Young children find time a difficult concept to understand and one that develops as the child matures. Initially, the words they use are mostly related to the here and now. Using a calendar to mark events and a group diary to record happenings will help children develop their sense of time. It is useful when talking about how many days to talk about how many ‘sleeps’ till your birthday.

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