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Developing Numeracy Skills in Early Childhood

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Introduction

Numeracy is evident in all facets of our day-to-day living; from shopping and cooking to paying the bills. It is the skill of using numbers and mathematical reasoning in all aspects of life. This stems from the ability to think and communicate quantitatively, solve problems through mathematical reasoning, understand patterns and sequences, have spatial awareness and interpret data (Department of Education and Skills, 2011).

Children have an interest in numeracy from an early age (Samara and Clement, 2008). They enjoy nursery rhymes and stories which contain numbers and counting and like to make choices between the big and small blocks; the mathematical areas of numbers and operations, and geometry. According to Samara and Clement (2008) there are five mathematical domains; numbers and operations, geometry – shapes and positioning, measurement, algebra – sorting, matching and comparing, and data analysis and probability.

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This assignment will consider the role of the early year’s educator in promoting emergent numeracy which includes the five aforementioned areas of mathematics. The importance of the learning environment and the materials provided, by the educator, will be demonstrated. Additionally, interactions and play will be deliberated and their contribution to developing numeracy skills in early childhood will be established.

The Role of the Early Year’s Educator

The adult plays an instrumental role in developing numeracy skills in young children. Dooley et al (2014) state that the principles of good mathematical pedagogy include the people and relationships, the learner and the learning environment. The educator must have the fundamental knowledge of how to promote numeracy skills through a combination of child-led and adult-led activities and the preparation of an enriching learning environment.

The ability to solve problems is an important skill in numeracy development and the adult’s role is to facilitate this learning. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA, 2009, p.29) discuss facilitating children’s learning by “exploring with children to find out things together rather than providing immediate answers” and offering suggestions, recommendations, ideas and advice if the child asks. This can be achieved by helping children to consider how and why things happen. Strategies might include conversations using leading questions; I wonder why…? or What might happen if…? and providing meaningful opportunities for children to think and talk about their learning (NCCA, 2009).

In addition, Flood and Hardy (2013, p.135) maintain that as maths can be an unpopular subject the ECEC practitioner should make considerable effort to “foster an interest in maths for the children in their care”. As children develop competency it builds confidence in their numeracy ability and they will see themselves as capable learners.

The Environment and Materials

A well-designed environment, with ample space and resources, which several children can access simultaneously, can provide many mathematical opportunities as children discover, explore and engage with their surroundings.

The Montessori Curriculum promotes numeracy in early childhood using specific, practical materials, specially designed so that children are attracted to them (Gettman, 1987). Within this curriculum there are two specific areas relating to numeracy; sensorial and maths. The early year’s educator prepares the environment with a sense of order, observes the child’s emergent interest, then promotes learning through presentation of the materials and assessment. Sensorial materials introduce children to the mathematical domains of geometry, measurement and algebra. They include exercises such as knobbed cylinders, red rods, geometric cabinet and solids, constructive triangles, binomial cube, colour boxes and baric tablets. The materials, which have a built-in feedback that the child can assess themselves, explore height, length, width, weight, comparing, sorting, matching and visual perception of three-dimensional patterns (Gettman, 1987). Importantly, they provide children with the basic skills needed for mathematics such as calculation of amount, exactness in perception and discrimination. An extension of sensorial is the maths materials. These are also self-correcting but move from concrete to abstract as children progress through the numeracy curriculum (Flood and Hardy, 2013).

Table top activities such as jigsaws, shape sorter boxes, nesting and stacking cubes, peg boards, matching cards, tessellations and sorting activities are useful materials in an early year’s setting to promote emergent numeracy. The child must decide how to sort based on various attributes, discriminate between size and shape, same and different, and discover patterns. According to the NCCA (2009) the adult can facilitate this learning, through scaffolding, by providing temporary support and assistance so that the child can move from one level of proficiency to the next.

Sand and water play are valuable resources for early childhood development as they provide many opportunities to explore mathematical concepts. With the use of equipment such as funnels, measuring jugs, balancing scales, float and sink objects, small-world toys, shovels and buckets children learn about volume, capacity, measurement, predicting and estimating (Flood and Hardy, 2013). Similarly, the NCCA (2009) agree that as children explore and discover, hypothesis and make choices and decisions they are building meaning and understanding which helps them make sense of the world around them, which includes numeracy competence.

Interactions and Play

Dooley et al (2014) consider play to be essential in developing numeracy competence in early childhood therefore the provision of quality experiences and the use of mathematical language by the adult, which also promotes literacy skills, are contributory to achieving this. Mathematical language not only includes vocabulary such as more or less than, match or widest, it also involves open-ended questions and hypothesising. The early year’s educator can prompt mathematical reasoning by asking “What made you decide to use those blocks to build your kennel? and “Do you need to make it bigger so that the dog can fit?” (Dooley et al, 2014).

In practice, pretend play, which may include restaurants, shops, doctor’s surgery and construction sites, is an example of how to provide mathematical opportunities. According to the NCCA (2009) early numeracy is clearly evident in pretend play as children make lists, pay for tickets, make appointments or build a house. The educator needs to provide a variety of props to facilitate this play such as measuring tapes, rulers, play money, shapes, clocks, calendars and mark-making materials. Additionally, the provision of different forms of ICT such as calculators, mobile phones and keyboards enhance and extend the learning. Through pretend play children can explore the concepts of time, date, numbers, counting, ordering, sorting, matching, comparing, patterns, shape, space and measuring. Problem-solving skills are promoted as children construct a house by considering; Which size blocks are required? or How will the roof be supported? Spatial awareness is developing as the children deliberate; Will the people fit inside?

Furthermore storybooks, music and songs, creative play and physical education are worthy elements in the early year’s setting which the educator can use to facilitate numeracy skills. The interactions between the adult and the child during these activities are important for early learning and development. If children feel secure and confident, they become involved as they listen, speak, sing, ask questions and clarify thinking (NCCA, 2009). In addition to promoting numeracy skills children are broadening their understanding of the world through language as these “experiences support children in becoming confident and competent communicators” (NCCA, 2009, p.34). When they listen to a story or sing a song, children have an opportunity to hear and discover numbers and counting, for example, ‘Three Little Pigs’ and ‘The Ants go Marching”. The tempo, beat, timing and rhythm of music are considered a strong link, as discussed by Samara and Clement (2008), to the mathematical concepts of counting, sequencing, and understanding of timing and order. Creative play involves being imaginative, using materials such as junk art or playdough, to explore the concepts of measurement, geometry and algebra. According to Samara and Clement (2008) children encounter quantity and measurement naturally, perhaps by comparing their playdough worms to see which is longer. They are exploring the concepts of length, 2D and 3D shapes, adding and taking-away as they construct and re-construct their ideas with the play-dough. Physical education develops spatial awareness and counting skills as children count for hide-and-seek and find a place to hide where they cannot be seen (Flood and Hardy, 2013). Races and obstacle courses support measurement such as time and speed as children discuss and compare results. The obstacles demonstrate the impact on speed and time as it takes longer to cover a distance compared to an area devoid of hurdles.

The daily interactions between the educator and the child can support counting as they count aloud together how many plates are needed for snack time or how many pieces of apple are needed to ensure everyone gets some. The question about the apple also involves data analysis as it would be necessary to consider the possibility of needing more than one apple if everyone wanted a big piece. Children can estimate and make a prediction before the division is made. Samara and Clement (2008) suggest that children must learn the concepts of probability, averages and uncertainty in order to understand data analysis which this simple activity would present.

Conclusion

This assignment explained the five mathematical domains of numbers and operations, geometry, measurement, algebra and data analysis and probability. The skills needed to develop numeracy competency in early childhood was ascertained which include the child’s ability to think and communicate quantitively, have spatial awareness, understand patterns and sequences, solve problems using mathematical reasoning in situations where this is required and to make sense of data.

The role of the adult in promoting emergent numeracy was established. It determined that the adult should understand how to promote numeracy skills through meaningful interactions with the child and by providing an environment and materials which are interesting, stimulating and engaging. The adult’s use of mathematical language on a daily basis is beneficial, promoting numeracy and literacy awareness.

Developing numeracy skills through well-planned enriching environments with ample resources was demonstrated. Montessori exercises are based on concrete materials which the child explores on their own, developing an understanding of pattern and sequence, measurement, geometry and numbers and operations. Table-top activities and sand and water play provide opportunities for early numeracy processes. Counting, patterns, measurements, volume, capacity and problem-solving are discovered and explored.

Interactions and play were deliberated and their contribution to developing numeracy skills in early childhood was established. Dooley et al (2014) consider play to be essential in developing numeracy competency in early childhood and the NCCA (2009) supports this view by stating that early numeracy is clearly evident in pretend play as children make lists, buy tickets or build a house.

The significance of daily interactions between the adult and the children during music and songs, story-telling, physical play and snack-time was discussed and ascertained. The adult ensures the children feels secure and confident so that they can participate, engage, discover and explore their emergent numeracy.

In conclusion, this assignment recognised that numeracy in early childhood encompasses the ability to use mathematical understanding and skills to solve problems in every-day life, the considerable role of the educator in promoting emergent numeracy and their understanding of how to achieve this.

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