In the early years of child development gathering, collecting, sorting and counting can become a great passion for many young and eager learners. You may notice young children will count a wide variety of objects. As a child constructs knowledge/ understanding the information they are exploring, questioning and manipulating will transfer to many other areas. Children aged three often are gatherers and carriers, meaning they enjoy finding every small to medium sized toy, object, tool and collecting them all together, then traveling with them. These items are then incorporated into the child’s imaginative play.
I’ve witnessed many early learning teachers trying to stop this behavior in their classrooms for one reason and it has nothing to do with learning; the children are making a mess and mixing the materials. Now if the items were being destroyed, ruined so other children could not use them, then, of course, we must put a stop to destructive actions, yet when a child is simply following natural development of the brain, there is no valid reason to stop this behavior. Gathering, sorting, transferring and using items for different purposes is natural and engages a child’s mind in a more meaningful way than being told how to play with those items.
An educational viewpoint embraces this stage of child development and encourages the child to continue with their explorations, questions, ideas, and plans. Using the classroom toys, tools and materials for different purposes show the child is constructing knowledge. The vehicle on which new understanding is being formed comes from the child’s ability to dramatize with the items, role play. Those mixed up and jumbled materials take on a role in the child’s ever-changing stories and make-believe adventures. When items like buttons or magnet numbers are collected and treated as frosted cookies, the child is displaying their understanding so far as to how life works. Too general of a term? The child is communicating through this process that there is an understanding of family roles, friendship roles, professional roles, and many more life roles that we all play a part in for our entire lives. And yes, the child is using objects, not for the purposes they were designed for, but rather as a way to formulate concrete understandings of an abstract world.
Counting is a regular part of academics in any household and early learning environment with young children. Learning number symbols is a part of the continued construction of knowledge. A knowledge that will be built upon with every small advancement made. Again we see that any object can be counted. Any object can take on the role of a number. When young minds count a variety of materials that action is displaying a mathematical understanding. If the child only counts one specific type of object, understanding is then still in its infancy, so to speak. However, when a young child can count anything and not be inhibited by what that object is, counting has meaning understanding is further along. Strength in mathematics can be in every child/ boy, girl or otherwise. We as early learning professionals should always put learning/education first with our young students. Human beings never stop learning, so let’s not get in the way of our youngest minds! Be sensitive to what the child is telling us.
Children want to understand so the best way to formulate knowledge is for them to physically manipulate any object they can get their hands on. Counting items over and over again and incorporating a wide selection of materials to be counted allows for the brain to build several pathways all with the goal of complete understanding ahead of them. Magnetic numbers do not have to be in numerical order for the child to formulate numerical sense. Each number symbol is just that an abstract symbol in the form of a concrete object that can be counted and lined up to organize and keep track of. A strong pathway has formed through many tiny pathways leading to this moment. The foundation is set for all future learning. As a three-year-old grows to four and five those abstract number symbols will be better understood, their value and meaning made clearer. Entering K-3rd grade the mathematical concepts explored so vigorously in preschool will ensure a deep understanding when they are needed for more complex theories and strategies. However, the most successful are not just those inclined with one of Howard Gardner’s intelligence categories, but those children allowed to fully explore the environments they inhabit.
We can see that while counting a child is also formulating an understanding of left to right progression. (My camera makes it look the opposite) In our culture, we write from left to right, so children see this modeled countless times. Writing is not the first time children show this concept and display understanding, yet all too often this skill is overlooked. Let’s stop rushing and pay attention to the little details children communicate to us. After all, children communicate in 100 different languages, children’s language, which is universal. Early writing is the scribble stage of development and a left to right progression is being practiced, yet in counting this is also happening. A transferring of information equals understanding. At the same time pathways for writing left to right are being constructed not only during the times a child picks up a writing tool but whenever a child finds objects to count and sort. All these pathways form while children are exploring, questioning, planning and discovering. And each is enabled to learn more and be successful as the elementary years emerge.
Paints and teacups with buttons follow the progression of direction. Mixing red and white to make pink is not the only skill being learned at this moment. As this child paints the progression of left to right is being followed, practiced all on her own and not with any influence from me directly. Forming a line with teacups filled with buttons has many skills involved. First sorting and filling each cup with the buttons, then carrying them to a specific location, which requires balance and motion, then lining them up.
I value early learning and respect every child’s capacity and ability to learn! Preschool is the place to start when you want your child to be as prepared as possible for all future educational endeavors. Learning is fun and us adults should embrace that joy!
The Marigold School of Early Learning is a Reggio Emilia Inspired Preschool Specifically Designed for Children Ages 3-5.
Heidi Scott, BA & MIT is an experienced Teacher