Monday, March 25, 2019

Segregating



A mathematician once told me that no matter how far your mathematic studies takes you, it is always about exploring increasingly complex and beautiful ways to sequence, group, and make patterns. I'll have to take his word for it, at least when it comes to pursuits beyond the calculus I studied in college, but I've had his assertion confirmed for me by enough people who should know that I hold it to be true.

Of course, exploring sequencing, grouping, and patterns is something that preschoolers do quite naturally around the classroom, not because someone has told them to study math, but because it gives them pleasure. Creating sets of like objects is, in fact, on of the first ways that children start to create order from the chaos around them. Last week, we had our collection of "exotic" plastic animals out (animals that are not native to the Americas). All week long, the kids spent at least some of their time building zoos for the animals, organizing them by species, putting walls of blocks between them.



This emerged spontaneously in every class, no matter what the age of the kids, and it has been true for as long as I've been teaching. It's not that they don't play other games as well, but this grouping game of is always a part of the play. It is so consistent that one can't help but wonder if this desire to segregate is something that is hardwired into human beings. And if we are not born with this instinct, then it is at least something that we readily absorb from our culture very early in life.

When it comes to inanimate objects like plastic animals, or counting bears, or marbles, we celebrate this type of play as a positive, as children exploring mathematical concepts, but when it comes to, for instance, segregating our baby dolls by skin color or our classmates by gender, we cringe. One can argue that it's all mathematics, and for very young children perhaps it is, but as adults we worry about the implication of this instinct to segregate. It's all child's play, it's all math play, yet it is also always about everything else. And that is why they need us.


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