January 13-15, 2017 I was very fortunate to attend the 32nd Annual PK1 Conference, sponsored by the California Kindergarten Association. The conference was attended by many preschool, transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st grade teachers. This was a great place to gather with other teachers and early childhood leaders that were interested in early childhood education. As I attended the various sessions that were offered throughout the three-day conference, a couple of terms kept popping up: perceptual objects and conceptual understanding.
At the AIMS Center these terms, perceptual objects (manipulatives) and conceptual understanding, are frequently used in reference to our work with students or when we discuss the developmental levels of children. Yet one term that I never heard while at the conference was figurative – the mental images students make of perceptual items. Why would this term be important to early childhood mathematics education? This is a topic that many of us have written about here in our blog posts. There is a defined sequence that children go through that helps them understand the meaning and value of any numeral. Unfortunately teachers tend to skip this mental image step when helping children develop a meaning for number.
Counters or manipulatives of any shape or type are often used by students in classrooms. Teachers know how important it is to give these manipulatives to their students to count and to use in additive situations. The problem is that we, as educators, direct students to go directly from these manipulatives to the abstract representation of numerals. Reading the research of Les Steffe and watching students work in centers has helped make one thing very clear to me: children need to make images of the items they need to count. Children need to make mental images that take them one step away from the actual counters that they have been counting. They need experiences that move them into this figurative stage.
This is a crucial step in developing meaning for numbers and was, at times, indirectly referred to in the sessions that I attended at PK1. I think it’s because this developmental step is very difficult for us to remember experiencing when we ourselves were in school. It is also very difficult to observe in children. Difficult but not impossible.
In my next blog post, I will show you some ways that hiding manipulatives have helped children make those mental images, which allow them to progress in their understanding of number. And to all my fellow early childhood teachers, I am impressed with your enthusiasm and love of teaching. The teachers I listened to or talked to at the conference not only wanted to know how to work with their students but also why certain activities are important. This conference reminded me just how hard you all work and just how much you all are willing to learn and grow for every child in your classroom. For that I say, THANK YOU!!!