During Woodland Park’s parent orientation meetings, I usually make some comment along the lines of, “You won’t find numbers in the classroom except when they get there by accident.”
But that doesn’t mean we don’t learn math. In fact, if your preschooler is awake she’s probably working on foundational math skills right now. Of course, many of us don’t see it because we associate math education with work sheets, homework and rote memorization, but those things have nothing to do with how preschoolers learn their ‘rithmatic.
Counting, for instance, is a daily, even hourly activity for many preschoolers. I have a photo of myself holding up a single finger on my first birthday – I was a math prodigy! What happened? To make sure he was adequately washing his hands each morning, Alex’s mom taught him to loudly count to 20 as he washed his hands. Elliott and Mikey would sometimes count out the blocks to make sure they each had the same amount before building.
You’re teaching math every time you talk about locational concepts like near, far, left and right. When we remind kids to “stay beside me” on our field trips we’re working on those Einstein skills.
At bottom, all of math is just increasingly complex ways to work with sequences and patterns. Jackson could hardly pass a table without arranging its objects in straight lines by color, preparing himself to ace that discrete mathematics course he’ll take during his sophomore year of college. When Keira and Ava sat side-by-side stringing beads in beautiful patterns they were getting ready for calculus.
Identifying shapes lays the foundation for those geometry lessons in the future. When Anjali proudly showed me the triangle she had learned to form using her thumbs and index fingers, I imagined the geodesic domes and flying buttresses she’ll one day employ as an architect.
Working puzzles requires a focused mind and an ability to calculate spatial relations. After watching my friend Hazel meticulously assemble every puzzle in the classroom over her three years as a student, I wasn’t surprised when she was accepted into the Seattle Public School’s advanced placement program as a first grader.
We predict outcomes, estimate, and form hypotheses based on past experience all the time. When 2-year-old Evan used his predicting skills each day to informed me it was “clean up time," he was rarely more than a few minutes off, even though he had no idea how to read the analog clock on the wall.
As holidays approach children anticipate the days through such simple activities as advent calendars or counting the days of Hanukkah.
Sets of anything (e.g., buttons, coins, stuffed animals) encourage foundational math skills; asking for “more cookies” or complaining about “too many” kisses does too. Many preschool songs rely on addition or subtraction. Shooting baskets is a physics exercise. Mixing mud is a lesson in proportions . . .
Math is in nearly everything our children do. They are programmed to learn math and we are programmed to teach it.
Forget the work sheets, homework and memorization. Math is supposed to be fun.