The Development of Numeracy in Early Childhood

by Ondria Wasem, PhD, WSP Math Teacher

It's time to serve the snack -- one bowl and spoon per student. Oops, one is absent today, so don't use as many spoons as yesterday. Partner up for the seesaw -- six children have a partner but the seventh does not. Let's ladle water from the bucket to wet the sand -- how many ladles can we get from that bucket? Back to the seesaw -- who's getting an even rhythmic ride and who's barely getting off the ground and then -- bump! -- pulled back to earth. Let's string the yard with our finger knitting and see whose can reach all the way around the swing set, to the steps, and back again.

Live, play, work -- this is how we become comfortable with numbers. Everything we see and touch has a number, volume, weight, and length. One child has five red gems, another two blue and three red, trade a red for a yellow and there's a third way to make five. Numerals are a written expression of quantity, but they are not numeracy, nor are they mathematical thinking, nor are they a necessary foundation for those things. First, we experience, manipulate, and speak about numbers. They come into fairness, sharing, preparation, and execution, for many activities of work and play.

When we start our mathematical learning with worksheets full of numerals, it separates mathematics from life and encourages a compartmentalized knowledge that hinders, rather than facilitates, integrating numeracy into our everyday lives, our intuition, and our thinking. Life experience is the real foundation of numeracy. Handle stuff, share stuff, accumulate stuff, and store stuff. Observe growing things -- plants, baby hamsters, fish, bunnies -- and there's the intuition for geometric growth, exponential growth, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci sequence. When the numbers on the paper get too confusing in middle school or beyond, it's helpful to have some sensory experience of numbers and all of the processes we apply to them to fall back on and reimagine, to support our thinking efforts.

So let the children play, work, and participate in life. Let them figure out which box will fit the books, or which drawer will hold all of the plastic containers, how many stuffed animals may I keep if I have only one shelf to put them on, and how to share them fairly with my friends so that the surplus can visit between houses? Show them how to measure while cooking. If we make an edible mistake and start over, how many more people can we feed? Have musical instruments around so that they develop rhythm -- another foundation of numeracy. Your little scientist-builder-cook-musician-acrobat-zookeeper-organizer person will be a young mathematician working on paper soon enough.

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