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How to get pre-schoolers excited about maths

Encouraging age-appropriate activities that build early familiarity with numbers and counting is crucial for mathematical development.

Maths is a compulsory subject for all students to take into Grade 12, yet last year only 37% of all matrics wrote the final paper.

Nearly half of those failed Maths – unable to achieve the minimum mark of 30%. With Maths being essential to many career paths tied to South Africa’s future development and growth, it’s essential to address this crisis at its foundation: children under the age of six.

“Establishing a sense of numeracy is one of the fundamentals of early childhood development,” says Candice Potgieter, CEO of The Unlimited Child, an early childhood education and skills development non-profit organisation.

“At this critical period of life, children are incredibly receptive to learning, however only if they’re provided with the right conditions and right stimulation in their pre-school years.”

There are four stages of early childhood development according to the South African National Curriculum Framework, where age-appropriate activities to build an early familiarity with numbers and counting should be encouraged.

The first stage starts with babies, from birth until 18 months of age. The toddler stage includes children from a year and half to 36 months, then young children from 3 to 4 years of age. Next is the pre-Grade R stage until a child is six years old. These early years are where the first foundations for numeracy and problem-solving are laid. This is also where developmental gaps need to be monitored through a child’s general emotional, social and physical well-being. This is expressed in their language, sounds, art, actions, and later in their writing.

“Understanding when a child is lagging behind their developmental milestones can be challenging for many parents and caregivers, and this is often a great cause of concern,” says Potgieter. She says some of the early signs to watch out for include a young child that has difficulty paying an age-appropriate level of attention, has a slow growth in vocabulary, and confuses objects, letters, and numbers.

Understanding maths is critical to raising a well-rounded child. Helping young children enjoy basic maths and number concepts is something that parents and caregivers can do themselves in their own homes, as a seamless part of their daily routine.

The Unlimited Child shares some tips to ensure children can be given the best start in their early years so that they consider numbers and counting to be fun challenges as they advance through school.

Babies (up to 18 months of age)

  • Singing is a great way to help your baby develop an awareness of number names and begin experimenting with counting.
  • Songs can be made up so long as they involve numbers, especially if they relate to everyday activities like putting on clothes or eating food.
  • Accompany the song with clapping and using fingers to count.
  • Talk to your baby about what they’re doing and what’s happening around them.
  • Ask your baby to reach for toys and other objects by describing their shape and size. This helps a baby to begin attempts at logical thinking by exploring their environment and finding out about things that challenge them.
  • Play is another important development tool. A great activity for babies is to give them containers or objects that are easy to hold, and then surround them with clean sand to play with.

Toddlers (18 – 36 months of age)

  • Speak to your toddler about things that can be grouped together. Ask them to put together items like shoes, toys and clothing by saying, “Can you fetch another shoe? Now you have two shoes.”
  • Ask your toddler to describe what they see in picture books and magazines, as this will help them to start learning how to categorise things.
  • Start using counting words like ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘more’ in your chat with your child.
  • Ask your toddler to find matching objects – whether it’s shoes, picture cards, or toys – this will help them to start understanding different sizes and shapes.

Young Children (3 – 4 years of age)

  • Tell stories and teach rhymes to your child and ask questions where the answer requires a number i.e.. “How many blind mice?” – Three!
  • Encourage your child to start counting objects in groups, and use words like ‘less’ and ‘more than’ – this will help them to notice what is the same, and what is different.
  • Set up a treasure hunt where you give your child directions – “go forward two steps”, “turn around”, “look under the table” – these are types of instructions that give children an awareness of space and also help them with some fun problem-solving. It’s also a good way to help them use language to identify objects.

Towards Grade R

  • This is an age where children can start solving simple problems. Ask your child to sort objects into equal groups – like sorting a collection of toys or crayons.
  • Encourage your child to start counting using their fingers. A fun game of “spot the difference” is great for getting a child excited about their ability.
  • Ask your child to stand in relation to certain objects, such as on top of a chair, behind a wall, or next to a tree – to develop spatial awareness.

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