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Mathematics is also considered to be a very difficult subject to learn because some elements are very abstract. For young children, learning is about developing a sense of meaning and understanding of the world around them. Mathematical learning occurs when children interact with others, through the active exploration of ‘concrete’ objects and materials (sand and water) within playful situations in a variety of contexts.
Young children initially learn through watching, imitating actions and handling objects and exploring space around them. It is through these interactive playful situations and social interactions that children develop a love for learning which is vital in the early years to develop confidence to explore new experiences.
Young children characteristically have a natural curiosity for learning and respond with enthusiasm to stimulating, challenging and exciting interactive playful experiences.
Therefore as a practitioner free play activities should be provided along with a carefully structured, activity based curriculum, within a well-resourced environment with adult involvement and play opportunities for children to learn.
The purpose for this is that children learn better when they are interested and motivated to learn as they concentrate and persist on a task long enough for learning to occur. ‘This in turn makes learning a purposeful and pleasurable experience.
‘ (Edwards 1998) Time for mathematical play provides children with valuable opportunities to develop and practise skills and gain mastery of mathematical ideas in ‘pressure-free’ situations. Children learn from others and will ask questions to clarify ideas which is an important process of mathematics as the need to have an understanding of knowledge and skills depends on a child having understood previous ideas.
Playful contexts represent part of the Foundation Stage Curriculum and work researched and analysed by Hutt (1979) identifies play behaviours in relation to children’s learning and contribute to children’s acquisition of numerical ability in the early years. These are epistemic and ludic behaviours. Epistemic behaviours are related to the acquisition of knowledge and skills through the use of language, visual experiences and exploratory practical investigations and problem-solving activities with objects and materials.
Activities to stimulate epistemic behaviours may include: individual or collaborative free-play experimentation with unfamiliar objects, teacher directed interactive exposition of new concepts or skills in number, looking and reading books with a mathematical theme, learning a new number song or rhyme or acting out real-life mathematical experiences in role-play simulations. These examples are designed to stimulate epistemic behaviours in nursery/reception but are relevant throughout the primary age range.
The second behaviour is ludic and this involves the practice or rehearsal of mathematical skills already required. This enables ‘children to develop confidence in applying new learning and to gain mastery of learned skills. ‘ (Edwards 1998) Activities such as teacher directed oral counting, mental arithmetic games, free sorting and classifying activities, free play with construction toys, representational or fantasy play and revisiting books and rhymes and completing a workbook exercise to reinforce understanding all contribute to ludic play behaviours for children to learn mathematical concepts and skills.
Providing activities and experiences with both epistemic and ludic behaviours allows children to receive a healthy balance of learning and mastery to take place in the early years. There should be a recognition that play extends beyond childhood into the world of adults as children do not outgrow play but their modes of play change as their needs change. Changing modes of play in mathematical learning moves from play with objects to more sophisticated rule-bound play and representational expression.
Throughout mathematical development planning, assessment and reporting are important elements of teaching ‘but they have to be manageable if the information they yield is to be useful to you, the pupils and others. ‘ (NNS DfEE 1999) Assessments can inform teaching plans at each level in a continuous cycle of planning, teaching and assessment, which is part of everyday classroom activity. The importance of assessment is to check children have grasped the main teaching points, whether they have any misunderstandings that need to be put right and whether they are ready to move on to the next activity.
Assessment is also the review and recording of progress children are making over time in relation to key objectives and whether or not children can apply their skills in a new context or whether weaknesses still remain. Assessment helps to identify children’s progress against specific targets, including those with IEPs and provide feedback and help set new targets. ‘We have to know what children have learned, where they are finding difficulties, and by implication, what new learning opportunities should be offered, in order to structure teaching and the content of lessons. ‘ (Edwards 1998)
Assessment enables teachers to obtain a more accurate impression of a child’s performance to set tasks appropriate to the individual or group ability. To achieve this teachers have a range of assessment techniques at their disposal: observation, questioning, testing or self-assessment and they must be clear about whom and what they are assessing when deciding what strategy to use. The assessment needs to be valid and reliable in order to be effective. Within the early years assessment through close observation is a continual and integral part of providing an appropriate curriculum for all children.
The Early Learning Goals for mathematics are outlined in the Foundation Stage (2000) and the Key objectives for reception (NNS 1999) are both used to assess children’s learning and development. Hutt (1979) believes that epistemic and ludic play behaviours and activities contribute to children’s numerical acquisition and learning. Activities to stimulate epistemic behaviours were a major focus during my teaching experience. Developing mathematics in reception class involved a mental starter, which included learning new number songs/rhymes and teacher directed interactive exposition of new concepts.
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