Post: Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths



Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths

Mathematics is everywhere in daily life and we should be using these incidental opportunities to talk about maths concepts.
Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths

Maths is all around

Do you use incidental opportunities to talk about maths? Mathematics is everywhere in daily life if you take the time to notice it. It can emerge while we are making breakfast (measuring), driving to work (spatial awareness) or buying a coffee (money). It is during such informal, everyday events that we gain opportunities to notice, explore and discuss mathematical concepts.

Children are naturally curious and keen to learn about their world, which includes mathematics. They start learning maths long before they start school. From birth, babies are developing an awareness of mathematics, recognising shape, pattern and number. In many engaging situations, children are exploring and finding out about maths without being aware that it involves “learning maths”. In their early years, they tend not to recognise or compartmentalise subject areas such as maths, history, science, art or geography. Instead their focus is on the learning and inquiry to find out more about the things around them.

Using every day opportunities to talk about maths

Through young children’s everyday experiences of play, exploration and inquiry, mathematics concepts can be enhanced . Parents, teachers and other adults are able to introduce mathematics concepts and extend children’s learning by elaborating on their play and interests. For example, a child may notice their parents folding two socks into one bundle. The result that the socks become groups of two by two. Experiences like this can start a conversation on counting in twos. Or they can form the early basis of grouping and multiplication. Adults can make the most of such incidental opportunities throughout the day. 

Using every day opportunities to talk about maths

Mathematising the situation

“Mathematising” is a term Rosales (2015) uses to describe opportune moments when maths concepts are extended to help children understand mathematics in context. When children are playing in the sandpit, for example, discussions can cover how heavy or light the bucket is, what shapes the children made in the sand or what patterns they can create. Cooking likewise offers a myriad of opportunities to discuss measurement and geometry concepts.

It is in real-world contexts that mathematics becomes meaningful and purposeful; here, adults have an essential role in mathematising the situation. Parents, teachers and other adults can support this inquiry by providing an active learning environment with interesting materials, sensory opportunities and provocations. Interactions with children engaged in exploration can inspire further curiosity, especially when they mathematise by making links to specific concepts.

Mathematise the situation

Making the most of play opportunities to talk about maths

The basic concepts children learn encompass number, geometry, measurement, algebra, data and probability. Although their experiences with these concepts before they start school will differ from those during their early school years. What is constant is that children start to make sense of the world and gain a knowledge of mathematics through a range of high-quality play opportunities. It is during play and everyday opportunities that children are purposefully engaged in problem solving, discovering, reasoning, and using trial and error in ways that enable them to explore maths concepts.

Making the most of play opportunities to talk about maths

To find out more about how to use incidental opportunities to talk about maths, see Marianne Knaus’s best-selling book, Maths Is All Around You, or browse through our other STEM articles.

References: Rosales, A (2015) Mathematizing: An emergent math curriculum approach for young children. Redleaf Press.

About the author

Marianne Knaus is a lecturer in the Early Childhood Education program at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in both the undergraduate and post graduate programs, and coordinates the early childhood mathematics programs and the first year professional practice unit in childcare.


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