Joyful Learning in the Early Years: A Tour

With schools shutting down for weeks or the rest of the semester in response to COVID-19, many guardians are concerned about how to support or even direct their children’s education from home. This seems particularly true when the children are young enough that online classes might not be feasible (or the school district has opted not to offer them).

Deanna Pecaski McLennan’s Joyful Learning in the Early Years blog offers educational resources for folks with young children.  McLennan “is an educator in Southern Ontario who is greatly influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach to Early Childhood Education. She believes in a play-based, exploratory, democratic learning environment,” according to her profile on the blog. (If you’re like me and don’t know much about the Reggio Emilia approach, the Compass School in Illinois has a blog post explaining a bit about that child-centered approach.) Here are a few interesting posts that could help parents and other caregivers keep their kids engaged with learning math during this stressful time.

“Spring Math”

“In times of uncertainty, helping one another is one of the best ways to get through the stress and worry of what awaits. I know that many educators and families right now are wondering how to help support children even when we can’t be together physically,” Pecaski McLennan wrote. She created the post “to continually provide ideas for how children can explore math in their natural world.”

“The CDC is asking us to engage in social distancing and being aware of what is recommended is important. Right now being outdoors in our yards, on trails, and in gardens is still safe and encouraged. I realize that some of us are limited by our personal circumstances and not everyone has access to a yard or natural trail. I will try my best to vary activities in order to meet as many circumstances as possible. I will also tweet ideas for math learning on a regular basis @McLennan1977,” she added.

Many of the activities discussed in the post could also be adapted to be done indoors if safe outdoor options aren’t available. At the end of the post, Pecaski McLennan shares a link to a free Kindle version of her Spring Math Walk book.

“Virtual Math Question”

“In our school hallway we have a dry erase board that asks rich, low floor high ceiling questions. Students and staff that walk by are encouraged to consider the question for a few days and then contribute their ideas using dry erase markers,” Pecaski McLennan wrote. For instance, she shares the question “If 24 is the answer, then what might the question have been?” By asking questions such as this, caregivers could give kids of multiple ages and levels of math background something to think about. After pondering the question for a few hours or days, the family could come together to discuss their varied answers to the question.

“Printable Pentominoes”

Pecaski McLennan shares a set of printable pentominoes. (She recommends printing them on cardstock and laminating them, but for easy, temporary, at-home use, they could also just be printed on ordinary printer paper and used without lamination.)

She describes these manipulatives as “an essential tool for any early childhood classroom,” because they encourage a positive attitude toward math, inspire children to cooperate and collaborate and “promote math thinking in a variety of areas including spatial reasoning (logic when solving puzzles, symmetry, reflection, rotation, design), measurement (considering the area and perimeter of designs), and number sense (counting the number of tiles or squares in a design, calculating the total number of squares using the anchor of 5).”

However, these tools can also be used in activities with older children. For instance, there are pentomino activities for middle schoolers on the

“Cereal Stringing”

While this activity isn’t inherently math-related, there are definitely ways to make it so. For instance, a caregiver and kids could each make a secret pattern using cereal on a pipe cleaner. Then the children could guess what pattern the adult created and if they can’t guess it, the adult could give them clues until they guess the pattern correctly. Each kid could then explain the pattern they created on their own bracelet. Alternatively, parents could play a game with kids in which everyone makes a bracelet without counting the number of cereal pieces they use. After the bracelets are made, everyone could make their own guess about how many pieces are strung on each bracelet, explain how they reached their guesses and then count the actual number of pieces together.

I also like this activity because it only requires a few materials and those can be easily swapped out. (Don’t have pipe cleaners at home? Use string or strips of fabric instead. Don’t have cereal? Use beads or help your kiddo thread stale popcorn onto string.)

The Joyful Learning in the Early Years blog abounds with other ideas that could be adapted to meet the needs of guardians educating their own children during the pandemic, even if outdoor access isn’t available or if the children they’re educating are older than the kindergarteners that Pecaski McLennan teaches.

Looking for additional ideas? The Bedtime Math website and app offer free activities. The new “Cabin Fever Math” section focuses on non-screen math activities that families can do together.

Thank you for reading! If you have ideas or feedback to share, please reach out in the comments or on Twitter (@writesRCrowell).

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