How to teach arithmetic and make it exciting for kids 5-6 years?

EMC director, Anna Margolis, just met for a math evaluation with a 6 year old girl. It turned out that her dad regularly gives her simple arithmetic problems to do ‘on her fingers.’  He was looking to diversify these exercises, but couldn’t think of a way to do it.

Anna promised to share how to do math at home with little kids. There are two tasks: to teach them math and to teach them to think. This article is about games and tricks to learn counting, and, provided that you ask questions and create head-scratching moments, kids will learn to think in the process of playing.

How to teach arithmetic and not make it boring?

The basic principle is that any activity must be turned into a game. There are many ready-made games, but you can invent your own on the go. For instance, in order to create a connection in a child's brain between an abstract number, its name and a specific amount, it’s good to use manipulatives - fingers, dominoes, cards, etc.

1. Math Memory 

Take dominoes and form as many pairs that add to 10 as possible. (You can use 2 boxes of dominoes at once).

Flip them over so that no dots are visible and mix them. Lay the dominos out in a neat rectangle. Now we can play Memory with them. Turn each piece briefly to remember what it says. If you remember where its pair lies, you can take both dominoes for yourself, and so on.

Instead of dominoes you can use, for example, Anna’s personal favorites, “ten frame cards” cards (can be purchased on Amazon or printed out).

2. With the same cards and dominoes, you can play a game similar to SET. Lay out the cards (if using dominoes, form a square 3x3 or 4x4). Whoever sees 10 as a sum of 2 or more cards first, shouts “Ten” and takes them. At the end of the game, we count the points (and practice counting in tens).

3. With really young kids, you can also play “thief”. 

I love using Cuisenaire rods - unnumbered sticks of varying lengths. It’s important not to show which stick is 1 and which is 5. Setting up for the game is a game in itself.  Scatter the sticks around and ask the child to figure out which one is which. Children will quickly figure out how to build a “staircase” out of them and tell which one is 1 and which one is  10.  Having built a “staircase” up to 20, the child will understand on their own that, for example, 15 is 10 and 5.

When the “staircase” is ready, you can start the game. You can walk up/down the stairs (direct and reverse count). Then, in the game, night falls and a thief comes to confuse everything. The child closes their eyes, and you can pull out individual sticks and hide them behind your back. To catch the thief, the child must name the missing numbers. A bonus is to remember not only the number, but also the  color.

You can remove, for example, all of the odd sticks and ask the child to “climb up stairs that are full of holes” (name the remaining numbers up or down in order) and not fall into holes (you can’t say where they are). Or vice versa, name all the missing sticks and so get them returned.

Another option: since there are no numbers written on these sticks, we can decide that the smallest one is not one, but any other number. This is good for learning multiplication.

You can also switch roles: children love to be “thieves” themselves.

4. Even with simple counting on fingers, you can come up with a variety of options:

Ask the child to come up with a puzzle themselves. Say "I came up with a secret number, if you add 2 to it, you get 5", You can make mistakes on purpose so that the child catches your mistake, etc. 

You can also purchase ready made games: “7 ate 9”, Clumsy thief, or a good logic game called Ghost blitz.

These are Anna’s favorite games. What other games do you know?

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