Numbers abound in preschool-land, and our kiddos get cozy with them early and often. English is plenty prickly in both written and spoken forms, but the language of counting is the real Esperanto, and even very young children are remarkably fluent.
We so adore the glinting-eyed exclamations of "I love math!" when a preschooler first counts to 20. And we treasure the serious concentration that chugs along to the a-ha revelation when she figures out that two plus three equals five.
But researchers take a much broader view of pre-math skills. They consider much more than early number recognition and counting play. The much-discussed Mozart Effect asserts a direct relationship between exposure to patterns in classical music and subsequent math ability. Look at our own Savvy Quiz, which gives you detailed, personalized recommendations for workbooks, activities, toys and books that will engage your child precisely where he is, developmentally. The math section of the Savvy Quiz includes patterns and sequences and shapes in core preschool math skills. Fancy that: puzzles are math activities masquerading as late afternoon fun!
So, how is that, exactly? What do puzzles and blocks do to support math development in the preschool mind?
The fine folks at the National Association for the Education of Young Children help shed some light. They explain that "[d]uring the early years of life, children play with concepts of size, number, shape, and quantity. They discover that objects exist, can be moved, and can be fitted together." So, in fact, objects (like those in puzzles and blocks) come first, before the naming convention of numbers and counting! The NAEYC article continues: "Their play and language form the basis for learning about math in natural ways, and one great way to integrate math involves hands-on activities and problem-solving situations that pique your children's curiosity."
Math is thinking and problem-solving. Turning a puzzle piece around until it clicks into place and using just the right combination of unit blocks to make a stable bridge (or using the wrong ones and learning from the tumble that ensues) engage the mind in the same way.
Count, measure, count some more. And then get out the puzzles and the blocks and the geometric toys and have yet more math-based fun! (Looking for some grown-up puzzle-math exercise? Check out the math skills daily puzzle at the New York Times.)
And, oh, don't get us wrong: the point of all this learning isn't because it's "good for you." It's because it delights little ones. And us. Don't believe us? Look at this charming-beyond-words LEGO abstraction of NYC life. Math skills underpin it all. Math skills, and a keen eye, that is.
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