Adding math centers to your play-based learning activities is a great way to encourage young children to explore concepts like numbers, patterns, and shapes. There are many simple yet effective ways to give children opportunities to work with math manipulatives and even natural materials, that result in fun skill-building activities that begin fostering a love of math.
Our youngest learners may be able to rattle off the numbers from one to ten, but the next step is to deepen their understanding of the concept of quantity. Using concrete representations of numbers helps them understand how much “one” compared to “ten” really is. There are many fun and creative ways to help children with visualizing quantity. It can be as simple as setting out number cards and asking them to place the appropriate number of gems, buttons, or counters on each card. You can create a placemat labeled with numbers and ask your children to build a tower with the corresponding number of blocks or snap cubes on each number. You can create a bar graph template and have children sort objects onto the graph, like different colors of Goldfish, pom poms, or stickers, then compare the quantities.
Matching games can help children understand how we represent numbers using numerals, number words, and representations like tallies. Ask children to match cards such as “2,” “two,” and “II.” There are also puzzles available that ask children to link pieces together that show the same quantity. Rolling dice and matching the amount to the correct numeral or number word also helps children learn various ways numbers are represented. As an added bonus, dice games encourage subitizing, which is the ability to recognize how many objects are in a set without having to count them. (Hint: Think of when you roll the number six. You don’t count all the dots one at a time. You know it’s six without needing to count.)
Math centers and games can be used to introduce the concepts of adding and subtracting. You can use board games, like Chutes and Ladders, and use two dice to have children add them together. They may begin by simply counting all the dots on the dice. With practice, and using their subitizing skills, they will begin using more efficient strategies to add the two dice together. You can also introduce subtraction by asking children to find the difference between the two dice. Similarly, children can use dominoes and add the number of dots on each side together. You can make a game of it by determining who has the most dots. Another quick and easy activity is to have children shake ten two-sided counters out of a cup onto the table. Ask them to count up how many of each color they have then add the two numbers together to find the total. This is a great way to show them that there is more than one way to make ten. To explore subtraction, ask them how many more they have of the dominant color. You can of course change up the amount of counters in the cup to target different numbers.
There are so many different ways for children to create and describe patterns. They can use tools like stamps, bingo dabbers, and stickers to create their own patterns. You can also create a pattern yourself and ask them to extend it. Concrete materials like links, snap cubes, Smarties, and pasta noodles or beads strung onto a necklace also give children opportunities to create patterns.
You can create a provocation by setting out a few materials and asking the question, “What shapes can you create?” Provide children with things like popsicle sticks, twigs, string, and modeling clay, then watch their creativity soar. Having them go on a shape walk, armed with pencils and clipboards to record their findings, will allow them to explore the shapes around them. You can also challenge children to make a shape picture, by setting out materials such as pattern blocks, shape stickers, or shape stamps.
Given the importance of early math development, it’s important to incorporate purposeful math activities into your program. Consider center ideas, such as those described above, to provide children with rich opportunities to explore math concepts.
Written by: Erin Agnello
Edited & Designed by: Jamie Schmalenberger
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My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.