We’ve been very interested in a collection of wild peach stones that Sturt House shared with us in Preschool House over the last couple of months. Initially, I set up the lovely little balls in a tray with a collection of spoons and some different sized glass jars. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I predicted it could become a space for some playful numeracy.
And playful numeracy did emerge. Children were intrigued from the first morning the provocation was offered. I observed their play over the morning, noticing how children combined the different resources in different ways. Some children filled each jar using handfuls of stones that they dropped in masses, and some carefully and methodically moved one stone at a time into the jar using a spoon. Some children took delight in pouring the stones from one vessel to another, and some children worked to ‘trap’ the stones underneath the upturned jars. But all children were deeply engaged with what they were doing.
That afternoon, I took a moment to sit quietly with the children at the table. Saffron was beside me. She had two jars, one big and one small. She filled the small one first, and as she filled it, she counted the peach stones. She made it to twenty before making eye contact with me and asking what comes next – “21” I answered and she continued on. “27. 27 peach stones fit in the small jar” Saffron announced. “Now how many fit in the big jar?” she wondered. “I think more will fit” she theorised.
Saffron again repeated her actions, counting up to 43. At 29 and 39 she sought assistance to know what number came next, but other than answering her questions, I remained a silent companion. “So 27 fit in the small jar and 43 fit in the big jar” Saffron clarified.
As I was helping another child, Saffron’s thinking continued. When I turned back to the table, she shared her idea with me. Saffron explained; “If you have two big jars and two small jars and all of the peach stones go in them, then you must have more than 100 peach stones.”
The trick with numeracy in early childhood is to stop expecting it to look how we think it should look. The Early Years Learning Framework tells us; “Numeracy broadly includes understandings about numbers, patterns, measurement, spatial awareness and data as well as mathematical thinking, reasoning and counting.” So when we think about this definition in relation to Saffron’s play, we can see clear links between theory and reality.
Saffron counts accurately and recognises the importance of 1:1 relativity – that each peach stone can only be counted once. She uses comparative language to better describe what she is thinking and doing – the big jars and the little jars – this is about geometry and spatial awareness. She develops theories based on what she already knows – if one jar is bigger than the other it will hold more peach stones.
But perhaps most importantly, Saffron is deeply interested in what she is doing, engaged in her thinking, and working through mathematical theories in play. She isn’t “doing maths”, she is using numeracy because she is interested and it helps her better understand her world.
This is how numeracy should look in early childhood.