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ECE Resources

Number skills: non-symbolic relations & combinations (comparing and combining sets of objects)

Type 1: Magnitude comparison
Determining the larger (or smaller) of two sets of objects (e.g., buttons), or determining the largest (or smallest/fewest) of several sets (e.g., 4)

1 How to spot this skill being applied in free play

Talk

  • Using language like ‘more’ and ‘less’ to describe two or more groups of objects (e.g., ‘He has more blocks than I do!’)
  • Making judgements about a single set of objects being ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’ (e.g., ‘that’s a lot of apples!’)

Behaviour

  • Using a balance scale to compare two groups of objects, or simply looking back and forth at two different groups of objects as if to compare their set sizes

2 Check for understanding

Ask the child to point to the larger/smaller/fewer of two sets of objects, or to the largest (or smallest/fewest) of several sets. 

Note: The smaller the difference between the set sizes and the larger the set sizes becomes (e.g., 8 vs. 9 marbles), the more difficult the comparison. You may need to define ‘smaller/ fewer’ to children first.

3 Guided activities to support each skill

  • War card game: compare which set of dots on two cards is larger (focusing on the dots and doing a rough comparison). A variation can involve identifying the smaller/fewer of two sets.
  • Playing with a toy balance scale: practise putting different amounts of objects on each side of the scale and talking about why each side goes up or down in relation to the number of objects on each side. It is best if the objects are the same size and type to keep the focus on quantity.

Type 2: Simple arithmetic
Adding to or subtracting from small sets of objects

1 How to spot this skill being applied in free play

Talk

  • Talk about simple addition & subtraction facts (1+1 =2). 
  • Talk about combining or reducing set sizes (‘we need one more block for our tower’, or ‘there are too many toys in the box, we need to take some out’)

Behaviour

  • Adding to or reducing the set size of groups of objects (e.g., creating a block tower and putting additional blocks on top, taking some blocks off of the tower, or taking a blue marker from a friend’s marker supply)

2 Check for understanding

Place a small set of objects one by one into an opaque box or under a cloth (so that the objects are hidden). Then either add to the set by placing additional objects inside one by one, or removing some objects from the box/cloth one by one. Then, give the child their own set of objects to represent or recreate the resulting set of objects.

3 Guided activities to support each skill

  • Snakes and Ladders:when moving pieces across the board one or two spaces, highlight that you are adding to the number the character is currently on (e.g., ‘you’re on 3, you move one more and that’s 4’) 
  • Sing the Five Little Monkeys song: children predict how many monkeys are left each time one falls off the bed while you represent the correct number visually (e.g., with fingers).
  • Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar: emphasise how small he is in the beginning, how he eats one more food item each time (have children guess how many things he will eat on the following page), and talk about how much bigger he gets after adding so much food to his stomach.

By Dr Erica Zippert

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Dr Erica Zippert

Dr Erica Zippert is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Purdue University. She studies young children’s broad mathematics development and how it is supported during social and playful interactions with parents and peers in a variety of informal contexts. She also examines the roles of context (traditional activities/games as well as digital apps/eBooks, activity goals), and parent and child factors (parental beliefs, child math abilities and interests) in determining the quality of early math experiences and subsequent math learning. 

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