Math Through Play

We find that play lends itself perfectly to math instruction. When the students are fully engaged in play, their interest is high and their stress levels are low. They are very receptive to learning and it is easy to pull out what they already know and involve them in mathematical thinking through questioning and problem-solving.

The Play Interest or Inquiry as a Starting Point

When we are planning for Math instruction, we usually pull out one big idea in Math or one strand that lends itself best to the overall play interest in our room at the time. For instance, when we were conducting inquiries into plants, measurement seemed to be a natural focus because we were observing growth. As well as measuring plants and everything and everyone in the room, we brought literature into Math. We read Jack and The Beanstalk then traced and measured, in many different ways, our school’s tallest teacher. We moved from linear measurement to area and counted how many beans could fit into our hands compared to the hands of other students and compared these to the hands of our “Jack and the Beanstalk” teacher.

Our Jack-And-the-Beanstalk

Math Strands

Once we have decided on a primary Math strand or strands, we plan for play at the centres that will include opportunities to explore and further develop learning in these areas. But since Math is such an integral part of our lives, there are always opportunities to explore all Math strands through play.Just try to imagine not addressing Number Sense. It’s part of who we are as humans.
The Math Strands that we are expected to teach in Ontario are: Number Sense and Numeration, Measurement, Geometry and Spatial Sense, Patterning, and Data Management and Probability. Opportunities to explore shapes, to measure, to sort, to pattern, to gather or record data, or to explore number are present everywhere there is a child in the room. The reason that we pick a main strand to address through play and through planned instruction is so that we can be sure that we can instruct and assess everyone on every strand. While the children are at play, we can target our main strand as well as any other that comes up through the play.

Mathematical Processes

While targeting the strand(s), we are also targeting mathematical processes. The processes defined by the Ministry are: Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proving, Reflecting, Selecting Tools and Strategies, Connecting, Representing, and Communicating. Here again, we try to select one of the seven processes to highlight, however, they are so interconnected that it is impossible to completely isolate only one at a time. For more information on these Mathematical Processes and the Mathematical Strands for Ontario consult the Math section of the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program Draft Document or visit:


An Aboriginal/Multi-cultural Interest (an example)

When we had a very strong Aboriginal and Multi-cultural interest happening in the room, we decided that Patterning would be a good primary mathematical focus. We had just been working on Measurement so we would continue that as well as Number Sense. We wanted to concentrate on the processes of Reasoning and Proving, and Reflecting, but would also target several other processes as they presented themselves.

At the Fine Motor centre we put out lacing beads, snap-on beads, links, and books to encourage the creation of necklaces, belts, bracelets, or whatever the children’s imaginations can create. As the students explored patterning, number sense, and measurement, they also strengthened fine motor skills. Later we added 3-D lacing shapes to learn about 3D geometric solids.

The Interest table had different types and sizes of drums and bells for exploration and musical pattern making.

The Creative Area always has a variety of materials for open-ended exploration but we also added materials for creating headbands and wristbands since making crowns and other bodily embellishments had been a big draw the previous week.

The Dramatic centre was a Home Centre with a “primitive” twist. There was a tent and lots of natural and found objects. This provided many opportunities for counting, 1:1 matching, problem-solving and lots of Math language.

At all the centres, we used questioning to develop patterning skills and draw out Math language related to patterning, number sense, and measurement –
Which one is longer/shorter? How can we find out? How many (beads) did you use? How many more (beads) do you have than …? Are these the same size? What might come next in this pattern? Could you use these (beads) to make a different pattern? How did you know what came next in this pattern? Is there a different way you could …? …

Not all centres in a particular week may lend themselves to a direct Math focus but there are always many opportunities to draw out Math language and problem-solving at a center.

The Block centre is always perfect for drawing out Math language – more, less, same, taller, shorter, wider, narrower, bigger, smaller, how many?, as well as problem solving. We put out some Big Blocks, stones, feathers, sticks, and a large variety of plastic animals at this center. We find that when we put out natural materials with the Big Blocks, the children often try to balance the Big Blocks on these materials which results in many good opportunities for problem solving.

Math Trajectories Activities

After we have worked with the students in small groups, we often put out some of the activities we have used from the book Learning and Teaching Early Math – the Learning Trajectories Approach by Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama. See our section on Math – Planned Instruction for more information.

Patterning through music

Pattern making on wings during an insect inquiry

Our rocket was made using different shapes

Numbers were posted on the side for countdowns and matching