You need to use your words!

Does this ring a bell?

As early childhood educators, we support children’s ability ‘to use their words’ – when we model the words to use to join in with play, to share ideas in small and large group conversations, to express feelings and to resolve peer disputes.

However, how often do we intentionally encourage children to use their mathematical words by modelling the use of language such as wiping the whole area of the table from side to side, putting the blue doll’s stroller between the two pink strollers behind the bookcase, or comparing who has more fruit on their plate at afternoon tea, or the most water in the bucket?ART_2138

How often do we intentionally support scientific thinking by encouraging children to talk about problem solving, inquiry, experimentation? Do we ask children to name a hypothesis or make a prediction (‘I think that if I add water to my bucket of sand, the bits of tan bark will float to the top’)? If we purposefully ask a child what they think might happen, this takes children’s play to a new level – the play becomes a scientific experiment to see what actually happens. In this way, we reinforce children’s dispositions for learning and create opportunities to set up related learning experiences that consolidate and extend children’s understanding.

We know that it’s important to help children to use their words to communicate their thoughts. This process provides opportunities for children to learn new words, to consider situations from other children’s perspectives and to explain their reasoning. Encouraging children to use reasoning to solve problems and inviting them to explain their thinking is important as it encourages children to use reasoning and problem solving strategies in their play.

Planning small group activities – or joining in with small groups of children at play – is likely to present more opportunities for educators to engage in joint attention and to facilitate peer scaffolding in a purposeful way. Encouraging children to articulate their thinking sets up opportunities to draw children’s attention to their peers’ thinking strategies and to encourage collaborative learning during play.

Multiple opportunities to engage in mathematical and scientific thinking, and to communicate this thinking using appropriate language, enable children to become increasingly proficient in the thinking and doing of mathematics and science. Connections are made as children transfer knowledge from one playful activity to the next. This knowledge becomes the platform on which new knowledge is built.

This supports children learning how to learn. In a society in which STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills are required for 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations[1], we cannot predict what skills toddlers and pre-school children will need in the future if they are to be constructive, engaged and reflective citizens. We do know, however, that supporting children to be confident and involved learners is a critical learning outcome in the years before school.

[1] Office of the Chief Scientist. (2014). Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s future.  Canberra: Australian Government.

Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is an associate professor of early childhood studies at the University of Hong Kong. She is interested in the home learning environment and young children’s demonstrations of mathematical thinking, not only in what they say but also in what they make, draw and do. Having moved to Hong Kong in June 2019, Caroline is interested in learning about play and play-based learning in her new cultural environment.

2 thoughts on “You need to use your words!”

    Jenny says:

    I see a great opportunity in challenging kids’ maths development in every day situations with their parents. At the supermarket, turning nagging for sweets into maths problems (if I was to buy two, at $1.49 each, how much change would I get from a $5 note?) can be fun. I agree with you Caroline in the importance of groups for learning – this as an only child! Very interesting.

    Jean says:

    something like, “with a maths degree you can be an aatucry,” and showed no interest in learning what I was interested in. One time I paid to take a test at the careers office, and when the results came back the careers advisor looked up my category in a table and said “Oh, there are no jobs that match your interests.” The interviews were usually short and hurried.I lacked confidence and felt completely out of place in most of my classes. I was one of very few females, from a working class background, and didn’t relate to the ambitious goals that other students had. All the printed advice seemed to be aimed at people who were better and smarter than me. Now with a PhD, I still don’t have much hope for any future career that involves mathematics.

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