Play is important for developing children’s mathematical abilities and spatial awareness. Piaget suggested that children can develop the ability to conserve through discovery play. For example, when children play with water, they begin to understand that if they pour water from a wide beaker into a long thin beaker, there is still the same amount of water there and when they roll out a ball of playdough into a pancake and then screw it up again, there is the still the same amount of playdough there. Piaget believed the ability to conserve number and volume develops at around 7-years-old.
Parents of young children can also develop numeracy skills through play. They can develop their children’s number sense through talking to them about numbers, money and quantities in everyday life and in play. For example, young children can be encouraged to use scales to understand weight or you can buy games such as ‘The wobbly chef’, which enable children to think about balancing objects. Playing games with numbers such as snakes and ladders gets children to think about the differences between big and small numbers. Even everyday situations can be used to develop an understanding of numbers. Counting sweets out helps children to understand less and more and can lead to an understanding of addition and subtraction. At a higher level, a sandwich can be divided into half and then quarters to develop the concept of fractions. Older children can be encouraged to count their pocket money to work out how much they have to save to buy a certain toy.
Construction toys such as Lego and Megablocks can improve mathematical skills and spatial skills. For example, one study found that children who use toy blocks to construct complex structures at 4-years-old achieved higher scores in mathematics at secondary school (Wolfgang et al., 2001). Parents can build towers with their child and ask them what happens if we put a large block on top of a small block? They can also use the blocks to build castles or ships and incorporate this into pretend play.
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