Early Childhood Today: Arwen, as you watch children during free play, what opportunities do you see to build math concepts?

Arwen Lee: I always have unit blocks as an option during free play. The children use blocks to outline their friends. Before they begin, I ask them to think about which child will need the most blocks. The least? They discover that a taller friend needs more blocks than a shorter friend to complete the outline.

In the art center, we have only one spot for painting. We have a waiting list and the children use words such as first, second, third, next, and last to describe their position on the list. In our listening station, I put out two books and four headphones. The children have to figure out if there are too few books, the same amount, or too many. Do they need to share the book or have their own book?

Right now, we are hosting a home for six monarch caterpillars. We feed them twice a day and each needs one leaf. As the caterpillars move into the chrysalis stage, the children conclude that we need fewer leaves.

ECT: Are there specific kinds of materials you include in your learning centers to support math exploration?

Lee: I have lots of paper and pencils in the dramatic-play center so that children can make grocery lists, menus with prices, and write down phone numbers. Our block center is stocked with unit blocks, foam geometrical shapes, manipulatives (pattern blocks, dinosaur and bear counters, and unifix blocks). In our library center, we display books about numbers, patterns, and titles that explore math concepts. We write a number on a card in our art center and provide play dough children can use to make that number of cookies, pizzas, or snakes. In our writing area, we provide gel pens children like to use to write numbers. We also keep a baggie with a number printed on an index card in it. Surrounding this is a larger baggie filled with hair gel. The children like to trace the number with their fingers!

ECT: It's always hard to know when to intervene in children's play. When an opportunity arises, what kinds of questions do you ask children? For example, what might you ask as they play with blocks to reinforce math skills?