I truly didn’t know that I had a “mathematical mind” until I was in college taking my first Montessori certification. I didn’t know because I thought I was “math stupid”.
My early education not only didn’t promote my natural inclination to notice patterns, solve problems, and order chaos, it systemically subjugated my innate inner mathematician to self-sabotage with negative self-talk and defeatism behaviors. You see, I’m in that majority of girls my age (I’m on the older end of Generation X) that began to lose interest in math at an early age.
You might wonder then, how did I manage to acquire multiple teaching credentials and gain enough confidence to be able to teach new teachers how to build the mathematical minds of their students? I went back to preschool.
Preschoolers Have Mathematical Minds?!
In my early childhood Montessori training years ago, I remember my instructor Mary Schneider patiently walking through basic mathematical concepts that came before the precise didactic materials that comprise the Montessori canon of math curriculum. I remember being blown away with how practical it all seemed, and that if I had had exposure to these concepts maybe I would have been more confident in my later math classes. My instructor utilized the work of Montessorian Bee Pape who has become a bit of a shero for me in my Montessori journey.
“It is believed that we cannot directly teach logical mathematical concepts such as number. Children form this type of knowledge from their experiences in the world…. Encouraging young children to observe, compare, contrast, ponder, question and think is a far more powerful way to support their development than drilling them on numbers and math facts. Maturation of brain structure and ample experience manipulating and thinking about objects in the environment are both essential for a child to understand number and the underlying processes that we use arithmetic.” -Mary Schneider, “Encouraging Development of Mathematical Skills Early Childhood Years”
What I realized is that it wasn’t just the concept being shared, nor even the brilliance of how each step was broken down into parts to best understand, it was the language that gave me insight and I have now applied to increasingly more complex math lessons. Like other areas of our culture, the language we use moves us forward and reflects who we are.
My mission now is to share with you, my readers, with some basics that will ensure you are cultivating math confidence in your students, and maybe even within yourselves.
Here’s two easy peasy lemon squeezy early math lessons that come before number rods (a material with a static quantity) to share with your preschoolers including some basic language that builds their mathematical minds! I’ve given you a shortened version of each lesson for the classroom setting and a practical application you can do at home!
The Sharing Game Builds the Mathematical Mind
In class, this is the perfect “game” for 3 to 4 year olds. Invite three to four student to a work space and have with you 12 items that are exactly alike. I tell the students that I’d like to play a sharing game with them and I have yet to have a child refuse my invitation. Let’s say I have brought 12 marbles with me; after showing them all the marbles and inviting them to touch them (to diffuse the novelty a bit), I say that the game is about sharing them fairly so that everyone receives the same amount. I’m careful about the language here as I’m not introducing “number”, just quantity. That to be “fair” means that everyone has the same amount, that it is “equal”. I begin to give each child a marble saying, “One for you . . . one for you . . . one for you.” When I’ve made a round I ask, “Does everyone have the same amount? Yes, when everyone has the same amount we call that equal. But wait! I have more to share!” After each round, I ask if everyone has the same. If they’re not sure, I ask they place the marbles in front of them and we count them, moving each one that is counted from one pile into another to ensure they see each is a separate amount.”
From there I introduce a shelf work that has four pictures of children or four resin animals or four of really, anything that can be made into a story. There are also 12 objects to share. I go through the same lesson and when all 4 “children” have shared, I take away all the objects and one of the “children” and we share “fairly” again with the three, then the two.
At home, setting the table is excellent work for your young learner. Prepare the dining table with the number of chairs per person, then the child’s job is to place one of everything for every person. “One fork for you . . . one for you . . .” etc. until the table is set!
As you can probably tell, The Sharing Game sets the stage for early division and builds experience and the language that builds a mathematical mind.
Equivalent Sets Build the Mathematical Mind
In class, I invite a child who has spent time matching objects and pictures, has played the sharing game, and has sorted a variety of objects with at least two or more variables to sit down and work with Equivalent Sets. I have a basket of small objects that are the same, and two cards of paper the same size. The student already has lesson etiquette down where I have a turn then they get a turn. My turn consists of taking a few of the objects and arranging them in a simple pattern on my card. I then invite the child to make their card look the same. To make a “set”. If they are able to do so, we say they are “equivalent” or “equal”. If they are able to make equivalent sets consistently, I then know they are ready for the red rods! This concept is an indicator lesson that shows readiness for numeration.
At home, take a moment when playing with open-ended materials and if your child is game, play equivalent sets with them! Another great game for all ages that can easily be modified for your young learner is the card game Set! Invite your child to find all the cards that look the same in some way then discuss what they choose with the language of “equal”, “equivalent”, and “set”.
So you can see here that building confidence in math with language and simple games isn’t rocket science! Or maybe it is . . .
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 25 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, art education, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and serves Montessori globally through her company ClassrooMechanics. AMS certified 3-6, 6-12