Seek Ye First the Early Math Skills
By Kevin Khaemba
I remember in primary school, I was good in mathematics and subsequently in science and arts (good in relation to my classmates). When I joined high school I became among the top students for the four years I was in school. As you may have correctly predicted, my favorite subjects were math, physics, chemistry, and later on in form 3, accounting.
There was something unique about these subjects; they all required deep-rooted knowledge in math. By the time I entered form 3 I was already helping some of the weaker students in form 4 with solving math problems. When I recently posted my photo on a social media platform, a former classmate could not hold his amusement and joked that he remembered me only for one thing; math classes. This comment was a testament to the indelible mark I left in my colleagues’ mind about my prowess in math. Given that I was good in math, I found subjects like Chemistry, Physics, Geography (especially reading maps) which required the use of some of numeracy skills simpler for me, even as most of my colleagues struggled.
But now that I come to think of it, math seemed to form the basic foundation of my future competency in learning (let me state here clearly that I have no evidence that the reason many of my colleagues struggled is because they had a poor start with early math skills. I only write about my experience with early math). It is important that children are exposed to solving basic math in the first few years of education, as these skills provide the foundation for all future learning, according to PAL Network’s Hannah-May Wilson.
Exposure to Early Math
I now vividly remember when growing up, maybe 2 years old, the old calendar posters (there were several because my parents did not remove them from the wall when the year closed but instead kept them as decorations) that hung on our wall to which I became very fascinated to a point I could spent a good part of my day starring at the regularity of numbers on those posters. I remember another poster hanging on the wall with the message “I May Not be Rich or Intelligent but I’m Available”. How I came to read those words without having stepped in a classroom remains a mystery to me.
I remember wondering why if the number above is 1, the number below it must be 8 and the number below it must be 15 and so forth and so on. I began to imagine what number should be below 29 if we continued with this pattern. In a simple calendar month, I began to decipher all manner of patterns. I discovered multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division on the humble calendar, in my preschool years. The alphabet became my stable everyday as I hummed them away every time I sat in the kitchen with my mum preparing evening meal.
As I grew up and began to chew roasted maize, I started discovering (and creating) patterns on the maize cob while I munched off. I counted each piece of the maize and removed each progressively revealing intricate patterns and math mysteries for a young mind. Maize cob was my favorite because it extended my imagination with numbers beyond the limited 30 or 31 on a calendar. I discovered this at the tender age of 4, long before I joined kindergarten, I was counting coins correctly as my dad send me to the shop to buy him sticks of cigar. At the age of 5, I was good in identifying shapes, in an old children game, where a threat is used to make different shapes using fingers of both hands. We made something like an alphabet running from A to Z.
Innate math skills
During this time, I could measure (some, like Piaget, argued that children have no sense of measurement until age 5. Subsequent studies have found that children can actually measure things at much younger age) the length of strings that could make the best alphabet. It was the best alphabet lesson I ever had. I started measuring the distance between banos (marbles) using thumb and middle fingers, as we changed the angle and slope. The aim was to position oneself at an angle where it could be easy hit the other bano without missing. I also played sipula with other children having drawn it on the ground. Sipula is a children’s game where structure with distinct patterns is drawn on a bare ground and the aim is to create territories. Once a territory has been established, no one is allowed to step on it but must jump. The territory owner steps on the territory with both feet but except non-territory parts which they must step with one foot.
I can point out many instances when I learned math long before I entered my first formal learning environment. Proficiency in what has been described in scientific world as early math is a predictor of strong reading, learning, and numeracy in high level of learning. Early math refers to a number of basic concepts such as counting, quantity, shapes, spatial relations, measurement and patterns that a learner is able to identify in early stages of development. Ultimately, learners who excel in math at an early age are likely to perform well in all subjects in their future studies. The same is not true, for example, for a learner who acquires proficient reading skills at an early age and fails to acquire proficient numeracy skills.
The idea that children are born with some innate sense of math is well established through research. Research has shown that children may have a partial understanding of number and of its importance before they have fully come to grips with the implication of class-inclusion. However, little is done, to cultivate this sense of math/numeracy as children develop. Instead, the focus is placed on instruments of learning including teaching and tools for teaching, which can only be useful as additions to early math. This, however, does not imply that once a child misses the early math, they can never be proficiency in their future learning.
Indeed, unique cases have been documented where a student in high school or tertiary level is so skilled in a particular subject but very poor in math. The opposite can be true as well. I know of cases where one is “very good” in math, almost genius, but performs poorly in all the other subjects!! So what should be done to nurture early math in children? First, understand that early math (also known as numeracy skills) resolves around counting, solving number problems, identifying patterns, sorting things, measuring, adding, subtracting, among many other activities. Therefore, even in preschool, children should be encouraged to engage in activities that will develop their early math skills. This writer hypothesizes that early math begin as soon as a newborn child opens eyes for the first time. The body movement as the child gazes on moving objects, looks into the eyes of its mother (the child is able to identify the mother has two eyes!!) among many actions are all signs that the child is acquiring math skills.
Helping children to understand how and why math is useful can also encourage the child to acquire early numeracy skills. For example, children are able to understand between big and small (discriminating sizes), high or low (weight), heavy and light, fast and slow, close and far, first, second, and last (order of things), among many other math skills. Like the biblical exhortation, Seek Ye First Early Math Skills,…and all these things shall be added unto you, I would say, children caregivers should nurture early math in children for a better learning proficiency in the future.