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Study proves children learn maths through play

A recent study has confirmed what Playgroup Queensland has been shouting from the rooftops for decades – children learn through play.

Children and maths

Research conducted by the University of Queensland has identified that children as young as 15 months know that counting is done in a sequential order. They understand that two follows one and so on. The study also recognised 15-to-18-month olds readily understood mathematical concepts other than simple counting. At this age they:

  • recognise numbers
  • sort and match objects
  • understand sameness and difference
  • enjoy collecting items
  • understand a command to move in a particular direction
  • enjoy making patterns.

The best way for children to learn maths is through play

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But, the most important revelation from UQ’s study was the best way to teach toddlers maths skills was through a play-based activity built into an everyday family scenario. There are so many maths games for kids that you can play by ‘stealth’..

For example:

  • Take them shopping and count (out loud) the items being put into the trolley
  • Get them to help you wash the clothes and ask them to sort the blue pegs from the red ones and so on
  • As you watch sport, count out loud how many runs the cricketer makes
  • When walking in the park, count your steps or the number of yellow flowers you see or perhaps how many ducks are floating on the pond.

It’s also important to get other family members involved including both parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and carers involved. Quality play experiences provide rich learning environments that support your child in developing early numeracy skills. As a child’s first teacher, parents and carers play a vital role.

Why focus on maths skills?

An article published by The Sydney Morning Herald reported some graduating teachers struggled to explain maths concepts to their students. This revelation follows closely on the heels of the announcement that Australia has gone from a mathematical world ranking of nine to 17 (out of a possible 65) in a 12-month period. NAPLAN results also confirm that the gap is widening in the areas of numeracy and literacy.

A study by the Early Childhood Association also identified that children were better equipped for success if they mastered basic mathematical concepts before they started school, and that these maths skills could best be developed in play-based activities (ECA, 2013).

The principles of play-based learning are that children learn about themselves, others, how objects work and how to use them through play. For example, when a baby has tummy time on a mat and grasps at blocks they are developing their spatial awareness as well as gross and fine motor skills. All of these will help a baby transition from rolling, to sitting, to crawling, to standing then to walking. Similarly with maths, by tickling your baby’s toes and counting them you are not only introducing the counting and recognising of numbers, you are also supporting your baby to learn about where they are in relation to objects, in this case their toes. If you do this and add in the song This Little Piggy you are strengthening an understanding of rhythm and rhyme, awareness of their body and how they exist in relation to others around them not to mention giving them a taste of sound and acoustics.

Maths games for kids

Here are some simple examples of play experiences that use maths concepts to support the development of early numeracy skills. These are low cost/no cost experiences that can be done at home, in the park and even from a distance. It is important to remember that quality play experiences are about being engaged with your child, but also letting your child explore and discover for themselves during play.

Maths games for babies and infants (0-12 months)

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  • When you put on your baby’s socks say something like: “One sock for one foot and one sock for your other foot. I see two socks for two feet”
  • When you baby is sitting on your lap, read out loud footy scores, batting averages or run rates – anything with numbers in that you have an interest in. Your baby will love your enthusiasm
  • Dance and move to music or visit a local library to find books about shapes and toys. Reading to a baby helps them to become familiar with words and sounds. If you can’t access a library think about making up or drawing your own story – this is perfect when you are deployed away from your child and the only contact you have with them is via a video link – write a story and read it to them over this link so they can watch your facial expressions.

Maths games for kids who are toddlers (2-3 years)

  • When preparing food, cut your food into different shapes and sizes or include a variety of different shaped foods for example bananas, oranges, carrots or peas, corn and cauliflower even the humble cracker provides a shape to look at and talk about
  • Blocks are wonderful toys to have for your toddler to play with. Duplo is a well-known type, but you can also use recycled milk cartons and bottles, egg cartons, cereal or pasta boxes even shoe boxes. Toddlers can stack, arrange, sort and order these items. Large plastic bottle caps are also an option
  • Books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar not only provide opportunities to talk about different foods, but also life cycles and nature. There are also concepts of time and quantity in the story. Similarly songs such as Five Little Ducks are very popular and work well with puppets (yellow socks work amazingly well). Most toddlers will love to sing along and count down how many ducks come back.

Maths games for kids who are pre-schoolers (3-4 years)

  • Playing shop is a favourite activity at this age. This could be a shop for anything you can imagine (ice-cream, clothes, food, pets, shoes). You can start to introduce the concept of exchange and barter, for example your child might like to make their own ‘money’. Plastic bottle tops make great currency or even bits of paper with coloured symbols on. This also provides opportunities for cutting, drawing, colouring, stamping and gluing
  • Hanging out washing provides opportunities for grouping, sorting and counting as well as recognising patterns and shapes. Your child can also practice opening and closing the pegs and support their fine motor skills which are precursors to writing and holding a pen or pencil
  • Play in the sand or soil with jugs and funnels or even tip trucks to feel the difference between light and heavy or full and empty. Alternatively, with supervision, fill a bucket with water and drop in different items and watch them sink or float.

Maths games for kids in Prep (4-5 years)

  • With supervision ask your child to set the table ready for a meal. Consider how many places they need to set. Count them together. Ask your child to select all the forks first and then the spoons. Ask your child to lay the places and position the cutlery on the table
  • If you take your child shopping ask them to help you weigh fruit and vegetables. When you walk up and down steps you can count them together
  • Let your child pour and measure ingredients when cooking (with supervision).

Play maths games for kids, using these basic everyday opportunities will give your child a solid foundation in maths that will stand them in good stead for a long time into their future!

Merredith Hutton

State Manager, Playgroup Programs and Services

Playgroup Queensland

About Playgroup Queensland

Playgroup Queensland is a not-or-profit organisation that supports Queensland families to learn and grow through play-based learning. A playgroup offers a parent-led or facilitated group environment where parents and carers receive support, information and resources, and opportunities to not only foster their child’s development and build their own parenting capacity but also to connect with their community. Playgroups are for all parents and carers, mums, dads, grandparents, and foster and kinship carers. Finding the right playgroup is important so please contact us if you would like to learn more at www.playgroupqld.com.au or call 1800 171 882.

Photo of author

Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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