Saturday, December 22, 2012

Five Little Fishies Swimming In The Ocean

I can't remember where I learned this game, but it is by far, over the course of a decade, the most popular table top game our four and five-year-olds play. The beauty part is that you can pretty much play it any time, any where, with a minimum of preparation other than to make sure you have some sort of snack food around, something that shouldn't be much of a problem here during the holidays.

The "classic" snack food for this is, of course, gold fish crackers, but things like raisins, satsuma sections, and carrot coins make acceptable substitutes. 

It's a pretty straight forward math game, one that helps children practice basic concepts of addition and subtraction, make discoveries about the constancy of numbers, and work on listening carefully and following instructions.

We start with a pile of gold fish in the middle of the table. I've learned that some little hands will immediately attempt to snatch a snack out of turn, so I set things up by telling them that, yes indeed, they will be eating crackers, but only if they listen. If someone isn't happy with this condition of play, there are always other things going on in the classroom, including a regular snack, so they can chose to either "play by the rules" or play somewhere else. This is usually not a problem, but it's an important part of the game, this idea that everyone is there by choice, and the conditions of participation are the same for everyone.

I say, "Everyone take five gold fish."

Most kids count out their five fish one-by-one, although there are a few, especially among our older kids, who can identify 5 "by sight." And there are always a few who will scoop up too many, then return the excess to the pile. However they arrive at their five fish, we then go around the table, checking our math by re-counting. 

Of course, I'm playing along. Once we're sure everyone has five, I say something like, "I'm going to arrange mine in a row," or "I have three on top and two on the bottom," or "Four of mine are swimming together and one is tagging along behind." The kids then take a moment to arrange their crackers, some imitating me, some finding their own way to organize their five fish. This too is an important part of the game; the children figuring out on their own some of the interesting math facts about the number five. I do not, however, use the term "math facts." We're just playing and the math facts emerge all on their own.

Once we've all settled on our arrangement, I chant, "Five little fishies swimming in the ocean. Along comes a great big whale and eats two of them!"

Everyone eats their two fishies, then I ask, "How many fishies are left?"

It's a vital discovery that everyone seems to have three fishies left! Then we go again, "Three little fishies . . ." When we're down to zero, we all count out five more crackers and start over.

As the kids get in a rhythm we might start off with more than five crackers or I might not let their supply get all the way down to zero before saying something like, "Everyone take two more fishies." This is a challenging concept at first for some kids: the idea of already having, say, three crackers, then adding two more. Obviously, this game can work with numbers of any size, although purely from a gastronomic perspective we tend to work with numbers under 10. (I was playing this game recently with our 5's class and when we moved from five to eight, Diego said, "This is the advanced version.")

As simple as it sounds, this game never fails to suck up most of the kids in the room. In part, it's the cracker eating. In part, it's the organized socializing that attends all good table top games. But I really do think the core of its undying popularity with preschoolers is that there is great pleasure to be derived from sorting, counting, and organizing. 

The joy humans derive from playing with mathematical concepts somehow gets lost as we progress through school, until by the time we're teens many of us have lost all interest, even to the point developing phobias about how "hard" math is. I don't have an answer, myself being one of those people who find the abstraction of formulas on paper to be mind numbing. The problem clearly doesn't lie in math itself, but in how we try to teach it. Certainly there are better ways.

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