Learning Mathematical Skills in Preschool Through Play and Movement

Throughout the months of October and November, our Early Math team was focused on the ways children learn through play and the mathematics that emerge as teachers interact with children alongside their play. We took one of the activities we created and took it to 10 Head Start Preschool classrooms. Our goal was for the students to interact with purposeful play, incorporating gross motor skills, meaning movement, and to have that movement correlate with the students’ counting. That sounds like a lot, but basically, we wanted to create a type of human board game and have the children be the “pieces” and then moving themselves.

Why are we focused on play and movement?

Research has revealed that school-going children play 8 hours less each week than their counterparts did two decades ago. With the increasing emphasis on academic excellence, society has engrained a dichotomy between playing and learning. This inadvertently has had a ripple effect on a child’s learning levels and ability to grasp concepts and ideas. This is distressing. Therefore, we created an activity to bring together playing and learning. Our goal was to have the students engaged and interested in the activity, flexible to their needs, and provide a stress-free environment to enhance their freedom to explore. Research also indicates that when children are in a sedentary environment, this can have a negative effect on cognitive development. Whereas, regular use of gross motor skills in children has been associated with improved academic performance and, equally important, attention and memory. Why and how does this work? Physical activity has the ability to improve actual brain function by helping nerve cells to multiply, creating more connections for learning. Schools that have added physical activity into their curriculum showed a 6% increase in students’ standardized test scores when compared to peers who had inactive, sedentary lessons (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011).

The above image shows the teacher interacting with her students and guiding them along the activity for the very first time. The students would roll dice that had either pips or a finger pattern that the students would count. Some students had the ability to subitize the pips and say “3” instantly. Whereas some students would see a finger pattern, match it immediately, but would have to look at their fingers then count one by one and then say the numeral. Once the students understood how many hops or moves they would be taking, they would then correlate their count to their moves. This seems simple to adults, but to preschool-age children it is a challenge and takes gross motor skills, along with their count linking to their movement. Once the students were actively progressing in the activity, the teachers would then ask them deeper level questions, such as, “Let’s predict how many hops we would need to get to the green spot,” or “who hopped more, you or your friend? And why?”

This diverse questioning can be used to challenge the children. The teachers loved the activity and have even thought of their own ways to do similar activities to fit the needs of their students.

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