Math without Math
Thoughts & Reflections
Okay, so, Maria Montessori tells us to “Follow the Child,” right? Children will show us what they need. We pay attention, we watch and look for signs.
It’s natural for us to count as we do things. We want children to be comfortable with math, and to understand numeracy, so we count around them. We count as they put their legs in shoes, we count while putting crackers on a plate, we count blocks when we put them back in their box.
So, when we hear children using numeracy language, it’s so natural to think, ha! A clue! They’re ready for math! But when we pull out a math material, this two-year-old has no interest, or counts without attaching meaning. Huh.
Nothing was wrong, all the clues were there, but it’s up to us to interpret them.
Take into account, very young children are acquiring as much language as quickly as possible. They repeat everything they hear, and language at these earliest stages is “cued.” We’ve seen it countless times, and it never loses its charm. A child sees a football on a friends shirt and says, “let’s go Vikings.” A child puts on their hat and growls. This one requires another clue, their other hat has ears and a bear face. A child bumps into a wall and says “oops sorry.” A child dumps water on the floor and says “oh no!” before doing it again. And maybe a few more times, for good measure.
So, what’s going on? A child associates an action with a verbal cue, let’s call them words, and puts the two together until they figure out the rest of the logic associated with those words, or these actions. When do these go together? When don’t they, or what else could I say, or when else could I use these words?
Growing up is such hard work. Developing this logic is huge, and actually directly prepares a child for math skills.
This is a child developing logic. Cause and effect. A system of steps that leads to a desired end result. How to fix a problem when you don’t get the result you expect. Problem-solving opportunities lead to solving problems in arithmetic.
“Life is a learning experience.”
So, back to the two-year-old who was counting. Follow the Child, into math without math. Mathematical principles, mathematical language.
Continuing to use math around a child, “We have four people in our family, so we’ll need four napkins and place settings. One, two, three, four.” But also, not expecting a child to be able to do this independently yet. Not yet.
Having logical games and activities available alongside other activities, such as making patterns, tangrams, shapes. Later this will become Math Analysis and Geometry. Today it’s just play.
Baking and cooking together. Naming the cup measures or the grams on the scale as you add ingredients, though not feeling discouraged when a child doesn’t know how many quarter cups are in a cup.
It’s too easy for us to assume common knowledge. We know about fractions and how it’s so logical that four quarter cups are in one cup, that the name gives the answer, but that is a higher level of logic (there’s that word again) than a child has already developed.
Letting a child figure things out, as challenging as it is, whenever it’s safe. Biting your tongue and sitting on your hands, or perhaps finding something for your hands to do, when a child puts on their underwear, and socks, and shoes, and then tries for pants. When a child puts a coat on upside-down. Correcting helps the moment, figuring out helps the logic.
It’s also being careful with language we use. It’s so easy for us to become frustrated or discouraged when a child tries again and again to force the ball through the aperture for the square, but this is simply because we’ve already achieved this learning, through our own experimentation, so long ago we’ve forgotten. We can identify the circle as the appropriate spot, but that’s exactly what this toy, this material is for — learning what the three-dimensional object looks like as a two-dimensional shape. Saying, “Find the circle,” doesn’t mean much when you don’t know what a circle is.
Life is a learning experience. It’s trial and error. Error is where we have our deepest learning, and hopefully a patient, kind, and loving adult who offers just the smallest assistance to help us be successful, rather than an “I told you so.”
Following the Child means setting them up for success, and helping when things go sideways. Paving the way for opportunities, for all the learning to happen and the logic to develop, so the world unfolds for a child, never assuming, never taking for granted.
Written by:Charlotte Wood