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October 24, 2016 Fun Early Childhood Math Games By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    Sometimes I feel as though any classroom activity can turn itself into an early childhood math game — well, almost any. When curriculum design contains learning that is open-ended, personalized, and integrated (as is so often the case in early childhood), math pops up everywhere. Learning through games is a powerful road to skill-building and concept-awareness because games are most often shared and most often so much fun to play. In addition to strengthening math skills, games introduce children to facile computation, strategic thinking, and sequential reasoning. Here are a few games, both group and individual, that my colleagues and I enjoy. You will see that each contains the possibility for many variations on a theme.

    But first . . . we know that commercial offerings abound — from Connect Four, which reinforces patterning, to the many memory and matching games available through Scholastic, such as Little Scholastic Laptime Games. Memory (or Concentration) is a game in which children are asked to remember which of the facedown cards is a match to the one in their hand. This is especially fun for preschoolers whose recall is so sharp. In fact, they often surpass their teachers in this contest (speaking for myself here). Preschoolers can both feel and BE truly successful with this kind of table game.

    By personalizing memory games, we can also link them to curriculum and community building. For example, a matching game can be made from photos of classmates’ faces, their shoes, or their lunchboxes. With regard to curriculum, we can create games with photos of autumn leaves, unit block shapes, or spring fruits. Thank goodness for iPhones and laminators!

    For our youngest preschoolers, I once made a game from photographs I’d taken on my walks to school. They were truck photos and included a cement mixer, forklift, pickup truck, moving van, ice cream, and fire trucks. The children loved to play this game, and began reporting back to me the trucks they noticed in the neighborhood. Of course, I continued to notice trucks wherever I went as well (occupational hazard), but the game was a powerful one, especially as the context was familiar to the children.

    Counting can also spark fun early childhood math games. A great way to help children transition away from the rug, for example, is to play, “Next Number." When a teacher says 6 (or 29 or 45), the child she indicates is meant to say 7 (or 30 or 46), the next number, before getting up to wash her hands. Should it be a more sophisticated group, the sequence can also play out by twos or tens.

    You may already be familiar with Guess My Rule, but I’m going to mention it because it is a perfect, and perfectly flexible game for preschoolers. At its simplest, it can consist of two trays placed in the center of the meeting area rug. Next to these, the teacher has a small bin or bucket full of small, apparently random objects that she begins to sort in front of the class. “Guess my rule,” she says as she places a red Lego piece on one tray and a spoon on the other, a toy figure next to the Lego piece and a key next to the spoon. When a child feels he’s guessed the rule, he holds up a thumb. Once a few thumbs are confidently and quietly raised, the teacher asks someone to demonstrate his rule by choosing an object from the bucket and placing it appropriately.

    As well as using materials such as plastic and metal, I’ve playedGuess My Rule with shapes, numbers of buttonholes, and uses (for building, for drawing). But everyone’s favorite is shoe sorting. I start by collecting one shoe from each preschooler, and quietly, mysteriously, begin to sort them by: Velcro/non-Velcro, or sneaker/boot, or buckle/strap. Pretty soon the three-year-olds begin to come up with their own games to present at meeting time, and that’s when the fun really begins!

    Table activities, such as board and memory games, are immediate draws for some preschoolers — for others, not so much. To ensure that everyone in her class is able to gain confidence and skill in this area, our Pre-K teacher, Nancy, includes a “Puzzles and Games Day” in her weekly schedule. Offering children an attractive array of puzzles and games, she dedicates the first hour of each Tuesday to game playing; no other options are available. As the weeks pass, enthusiasm grows, and soon Nancy opens the door to parent participation — an added dynamic all the children enjoy.

    I mentioned at the top of this piece, how early childhood math games live just about everywhere waiting for us to turn a concept or skill into a source of fun. I touched on a few fundamental math concepts here, including: counting and sequencing, sorting, matching, patterning, estimation, and visual memory. Games are also great diagnostic tools that we can refer to in parent–teacher conferences.

    I’d like to close with my colleague Cathy’s brilliant and totally fun symmetry game. To her class, she describes symmetrical as something that is the same on both sides. “Who can think of something symmetrical in their own body?” Pretty soon, children are suggesting eyes and ears, hands and arms. They broaden their scope to butterfly wings and “flower petals sometimes.” Eventually, with the class seated around her, Cathy places a line of tape down the center of the rug, labeling it a line of symmetry. Next to her is a box of attribute blocks. She selects a red triangle and places it on one side. She places another in the same spot on the opposite side of the line. By selecting different shapes and colors, she creates a symmetrical, mirror-like design. Her next step is to place a block on one side only and ask a child to mirror this placement on the opposite side. (Photo #5) “Was s/he right?” she asks each time a child positions a block, keeping the group tightly focused on each round of placement. As with so many activities, such as rhyming and counting, it’s amazing how some children “get it” without batting an eye, while others labor, improving only after extensive repetition. This is why early childhood teachers repeat, repeat, repeat.  

    But back to Cathy. Once the group has this process solidly under their belts, Cathy opens the door to independent symmetry design, and soon the class owns this game. For example, three-year-old Noah places a large yellow circle right next to a red triangle and asks Kaylah to copy it, which she does. Kaylah then adds a green square on her side, asking Lora to duplicate it. I sometimes wonder how an activity that requires so much focus and sustained attention can also be so much fun. It must lie in the power of play-based learning.

    Sometimes I feel as though any classroom activity can turn itself into an early childhood math game — well, almost any. When curriculum design contains learning that is open-ended, personalized, and integrated (as is so often the case in early childhood), math pops up everywhere. Learning through games is a powerful road to skill-building and concept-awareness because games are most often shared and most often so much fun to play. In addition to strengthening math skills, games introduce children to facile computation, strategic thinking, and sequential reasoning. Here are a few games, both group and individual, that my colleagues and I enjoy. You will see that each contains the possibility for many variations on a theme.

    But first . . . we know that commercial offerings abound — from Connect Four, which reinforces patterning, to the many memory and matching games available through Scholastic, such as Little Scholastic Laptime Games. Memory (or Concentration) is a game in which children are asked to remember which of the facedown cards is a match to the one in their hand. This is especially fun for preschoolers whose recall is so sharp. In fact, they often surpass their teachers in this contest (speaking for myself here). Preschoolers can both feel and BE truly successful with this kind of table game.

    By personalizing memory games, we can also link them to curriculum and community building. For example, a matching game can be made from photos of classmates’ faces, their shoes, or their lunchboxes. With regard to curriculum, we can create games with photos of autumn leaves, unit block shapes, or spring fruits. Thank goodness for iPhones and laminators!

    For our youngest preschoolers, I once made a game from photographs I’d taken on my walks to school. They were truck photos and included a cement mixer, forklift, pickup truck, moving van, ice cream, and fire trucks. The children loved to play this game, and began reporting back to me the trucks they noticed in the neighborhood. Of course, I continued to notice trucks wherever I went as well (occupational hazard), but the game was a powerful one, especially as the context was familiar to the children.

    Counting can also spark fun early childhood math games. A great way to help children transition away from the rug, for example, is to play, “Next Number." When a teacher says 6 (or 29 or 45), the child she indicates is meant to say 7 (or 30 or 46), the next number, before getting up to wash her hands. Should it be a more sophisticated group, the sequence can also play out by twos or tens.

    You may already be familiar with Guess My Rule, but I’m going to mention it because it is a perfect, and perfectly flexible game for preschoolers. At its simplest, it can consist of two trays placed in the center of the meeting area rug. Next to these, the teacher has a small bin or bucket full of small, apparently random objects that she begins to sort in front of the class. “Guess my rule,” she says as she places a red Lego piece on one tray and a spoon on the other, a toy figure next to the Lego piece and a key next to the spoon. When a child feels he’s guessed the rule, he holds up a thumb. Once a few thumbs are confidently and quietly raised, the teacher asks someone to demonstrate his rule by choosing an object from the bucket and placing it appropriately.

    As well as using materials such as plastic and metal, I’ve playedGuess My Rule with shapes, numbers of buttonholes, and uses (for building, for drawing). But everyone’s favorite is shoe sorting. I start by collecting one shoe from each preschooler, and quietly, mysteriously, begin to sort them by: Velcro/non-Velcro, or sneaker/boot, or buckle/strap. Pretty soon the three-year-olds begin to come up with their own games to present at meeting time, and that’s when the fun really begins!

    Table activities, such as board and memory games, are immediate draws for some preschoolers — for others, not so much. To ensure that everyone in her class is able to gain confidence and skill in this area, our Pre-K teacher, Nancy, includes a “Puzzles and Games Day” in her weekly schedule. Offering children an attractive array of puzzles and games, she dedicates the first hour of each Tuesday to game playing; no other options are available. As the weeks pass, enthusiasm grows, and soon Nancy opens the door to parent participation — an added dynamic all the children enjoy.

    I mentioned at the top of this piece, how early childhood math games live just about everywhere waiting for us to turn a concept or skill into a source of fun. I touched on a few fundamental math concepts here, including: counting and sequencing, sorting, matching, patterning, estimation, and visual memory. Games are also great diagnostic tools that we can refer to in parent–teacher conferences.

    I’d like to close with my colleague Cathy’s brilliant and totally fun symmetry game. To her class, she describes symmetrical as something that is the same on both sides. “Who can think of something symmetrical in their own body?” Pretty soon, children are suggesting eyes and ears, hands and arms. They broaden their scope to butterfly wings and “flower petals sometimes.” Eventually, with the class seated around her, Cathy places a line of tape down the center of the rug, labeling it a line of symmetry. Next to her is a box of attribute blocks. She selects a red triangle and places it on one side. She places another in the same spot on the opposite side of the line. By selecting different shapes and colors, she creates a symmetrical, mirror-like design. Her next step is to place a block on one side only and ask a child to mirror this placement on the opposite side. (Photo #5) “Was s/he right?” she asks each time a child positions a block, keeping the group tightly focused on each round of placement. As with so many activities, such as rhyming and counting, it’s amazing how some children “get it” without batting an eye, while others labor, improving only after extensive repetition. This is why early childhood teachers repeat, repeat, repeat.  

    But back to Cathy. Once the group has this process solidly under their belts, Cathy opens the door to independent symmetry design, and soon the class owns this game. For example, three-year-old Noah places a large yellow circle right next to a red triangle and asks Kaylah to copy it, which she does. Kaylah then adds a green square on her side, asking Lora to duplicate it. I sometimes wonder how an activity that requires so much focus and sustained attention can also be so much fun. It must lie in the power of play-based learning.

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