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How do children learn maths through 'just playing', and what affect does play have on behaviour?

Updated: Jan 26

There is A LOT to be said about play. There really is so much out there, you could study a Phd and still not be done BUT I'm going to explain it a bit here, because well, it's a bit more digestible than doing a phd.

Child led, open ended play has the most incredible benefits on children’s mental, physical and emotional well-being, brain development and self esteem.

It is as necessary for a child to play as it is to sleep and eat. It is how they learn. It is how they communicate and express themselves and it is how they feel calm and in control. There have been links found between hardened criminals and a lack of childhood play. Of course there may have been other factors, such as poverty or neglect, but ultimately, play has been found to be the child's way of making sense of the world around them.

I often say ‘Play is your child’s love language’.

It is never ‘just play’.

It shouldn’t be an after thought or something children ‘get to do’ if they’re ‘good’ or if there is time after the other stuff. It is a child’s right to have opportunities to play every day. Play improves memory, it engages (and literally grows) the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for things such as problem solving, logic, decision making and reasoning, as well as emotional regulation and empathy. How children play is also very much an expression of themselves. We learn who children are through their play.

Unfortunately many adults see these experiences as 'just playing' and wait for a time when their child will start 'real learning'. The type that is dull, and prescriptive.

Below I want to demonstrate a few ways in which children learn mathematical concepts WHILST playing. They are learning by DOING. They are learning though ACTION. With CURIOSITY. In CONTEXT. It has MEANING. They make CONNECTIONS.

Lightbulb moments are sparked constantly through play. Brains are built this way.

No iPad app or worksheet can replace this kind of play.

Most children will go through a phase where they LOVE filling and emptying things. There are so many opportunities for this, changing up resources. each time they are satisfying a need as well as experimenting with volume, weight and measure! They don't know that explicitly but it doesn't take the learning away from them.

Baking is a fantastic learning activity and again, through doing and being motivated, children learn a lot. Lots of use of language such as more, less, heavier, lighter, longer, shorter, taller, smaller will help children to understand these terms in context.

Exploring with different resources and everyday items to build, and create will help children grasp an understanding of shape - not just the same of different shapes, but also of 3d structures, area and angles. This doesn't have to be 'taught', children will naturally explore and will learn through their own curiosity. We can be there to spark ideas with 'I wonder...' and help answer questions and extend their learning. But it is important that it is led by their interests.

Children don't need to 'know their numbers' early on. First they need to grapple with the ideas and concepts of number. They will learn first that things exist and then they can be 'gone' (this is the very first stage of understanding the concept of 'zero'). That 'nothing' means none. Then this will gradually develop in to understanding that one 'thing' equates to the figure '1' and the word 'one'. You might have children who can count to ten in order because they have heard that done many times - but this means nothing to them.

They don't understand that 3 is one 'more' or 'greater' than 2 or that 8 is one 'less' than 9. They literally just know the words, and that the words go in order. A bit like learning the words to a song in a different language! You wouldn't know what any of it means, where one word started and another one ended and you wouldn't be able to take parts of that song and use it somewhere else in a different sentence because you have no IDEA what it actually means. That's the same as children learning to say 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10! It's more of a show of memory than anything.

My top tips - use language and vocabulary related to number often, during your everyday and in playful ways. MODEL to your child what things mean. When getting dressed - 'How many socks have we got....? 1, 2! And lets check, how many feet have you got....? 1, 2!" You aren't asking you are showing. You're teaching, through playfulness and in context. "You want 'more' sausages? How many more have we got here...1,2,3. Can you eat 3? Hmmmmmm maybe not, let's just give you 1"

If you find playing hard, this is a great way to start and become more playful, just during your everyday interactions.

Many adults find playing hard, and that’s ok.

However I do believe that by fully understanding the benefits, you will start to enjoy it more. Just 10 minutes of 1:1 time with your child can fill their cup so they feel totally seen and connected to you can save you time later on. It will limit the chances of your child looking for other, less positive ways to get that attention from you, which won’t feel so good 😖🥺😬.

As always, please comment or share this blog if you've found it useful and sign up to receive my next blog straight in to your inbox here.


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