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Early Math Play Skills

This is the first of a three-part series about the natural early math learning process for my builder son. Part Two shares his Early Math Activities and Part Three shares his formal learning called Is Formal Math Necessary?

My builder son graduated with both a computer science major and mathematics minor degree.  He showed from an early age that he would be gifted in the spatial arena.  He viewed everything spatially, and math was no exception.  In fact, I would have to surmise that those who are builder-types and view things spatially have a natural bent toward learning and loving mathematics.  I believe his spatial skill development truly started through his play choices.

I noticed these attributes starting at the young age of 1.5 years old. My builder son took notice of his big brother’s die cast Thomas the Tank Engine train collection.  He would meticulously link them together and drive them around a large space in my kitchen.  He liked to get right down at the same level of the trains, with his face pressed into the floor, as he drove them around.  This showed early skill development of visualization of spatial concepts.

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Almost 2 years old.

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Up close and personal.

 

 

 

 

 

When my builder son was almost 3 years old, he received his first Brio wooden train tracks for Christmas.  Oh, was he excited!  He began constructing train track configurations ever since, including any other style he found or was given.  I remember well this little corner in our living room was put to good use as his train corner.  Again, the visualization and spatial skills necessary to accomplish this is evident.

Brio, almost 4.

Brio, almost 4.

Motorized Tomy train set.

Motorized Tomy train set.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know when I bought the Lincoln Logs to have in the house.  I think I may have done so when my two older children were younger, thinking it to be a classic toy, so I would bring that into the home.  I may have also done it on my “all wooden toy” kick.  Needless to say, when my builder son discovered them, they were next on his agenda to conquer.  One day, I was to get a big surprise when I walked into his room.  I found that he had taken the Lincoln Log pieces and laid them out to represent all the single digit numbers.  He was about age 4.5 years.  I guess that would have been my first indication that he would naturally be drawn to math!  He would subsequently build with Lincoln Logs traditionally.

4.5 years old

4.5 years old

Almost 5 years old.

Almost 5 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

All types of building material was fair game for my builder son to explore and develop his spatial skills.  I found a screw and nail building set in which he was challenged in new ways as well as using to enhance his train track creations.

6 years old.

6 years old.

Almost 5 years old.

Almost 5 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before LEGO entered the scene.  My builder son started dabbling in it around 4 years old, and went to around 12-13 years old before he traded it in for computer programming.  He started making stop-gap action movies with his LEGO with LEGO Studio around 11 years old. Technics and LEGO Mindstorms followed shortly after that.  He seemed to always want to build with the actual directions the first time, and then he would often build his own creations.

6.5 years old. His own creation.

6.5 years old. His own creation.

 

Stop-gap motion LEGO Studio movies.           10 years old.

 

Creating novel LEGO designs takes great visualization and spatial ability.  My builder son made a pyramid after talking about it in our homeschooling.  Inside this pyramid was just as intricate with mazes as the outside was able to depict its representation.  Further, my builder son was making contraptions before they existed (or at least before we knew they did if they were in existence at the time).

9.5 years old

9.5 years old

6.5 years old.

6.5 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

To conclude the building aspect to his math progression, there was a season when he would intersperse the diverse types of resources and create cities.

6 years old.

6 years old.

Thus, beginning at 18 months old with building his train cars to the age of about 11 to 12 years old with his LEGO, his “play” truly was the foundation of thinking mathematically for my builder son.  This period also extensively developed his visualization and spatial skills that would serve him well both for math and for computer programming.  He would spend time during this entire timeframe of at least 6 to 8 hours a day building.

Although I didn’t know at the time I would consider these play activities  so important to my builder son’s development of math attributes, I did recognize at the time the higher level skills he needed to play in this manner. I also chose to value his focus on trains and building materials as relevant, whether I fully understood the extent of the value at the time or not. Later, I would research his learning style and discover he is a right-brained learner. These children spend a lot of focused time on creative outlets as the strongest basis of representing their universal gifts of pictorial thinking and creativity, especially starting in the early years. Building is one of those creative outlets, and it’s quite evident in this post that this was a gift and focus for my builder son. Play truly does reveal the strengths and gifts of any child if we learn to value what they show us is important to them.

What play skills do you notice (or in hindsight, did you notice) that your math-loving child is/was attracted to?

12 responses to “Early Math Play Skills

  1. Cindy, I loved this post! Thank you.

    Your son’s building play reminded that I read a book a few years ago about how scientists look back and see their childhoods as contributing to their careers. By far the most talked about Legos. So you are absolutely spot on about how this play creates a foundation for higher level mathematical skills.

    My daughter is currently in her sophomore year of college, considering a double major with theater and either physics or math. Math is by far her easiest subject, and this is all the more amazing since she was diagnosed with a math disability when she was younger and even offered specific math accommodations in college, which she declined except for time and a half on written exams.

    Because she has some quite severe fine motor issues, my daughter was not an obsessive builder. But she loved thinking about numbers. She would line up plastic animals in pairs around the bathtub rim and when she was four and a half she started making discoveries like, “When you add one and one it’s double. When you add doubles it comes out even. When you add odd numbers, EVERY TIME you do it it comes out even.”

    She had favorite numbers (two was her favorite prime because it was the only even one), loved thinking about infinity and negative numbers. She liked seeing how numbers worked.

    We had no math curriculum until she was in 7th grade. We used lots of living math books, made our own versions of them, made 3-D and flat maps, measured everything, estimated, played spatial games, every logic game I could find, and used Marilyn Burns math resources. In 7th grade she asked for a textbook on problem-solving methods, so we used Crossing the River With Dogs. In 8th she started using an algebra textbook. She taught herself entirely, and went into college at calc 3 level. She likes math better the higher up and more abstract it gets.

    My daughter would have failed a conventional math curriculum in school, as she learned abstract concepts well before calculation skills, learned algebraic equation balancing when she could still not tell time or count out things with her hands accurately or write numbers clearly enough for worksheets. She learned multiplication before she had memorized her addition tables. I’m so glad I had the chance to set her free and let her develop in her own way.

    Thank you again, Cindy. From my own experience talking with other homeschoolers, I know that even the most relaxed often feel they have to use a math curriculum, and that dramatically limits how they — and their kids — think about mathematics, miring them in calculation for years when their kids’ abilities and strengths and timetable might lie in a very different direction.

    • I love all the observations you made about your own daughter’s journey to loving and excelling in math! When I share my subsequent posts from this series next week, you’ll find that our children’s math journeys continue to align! Your daughter most definitely sounds like a right-brained learner, and as such, and as it pertains to math, as you discovered, she was much more natural as a mathematics person than an arithmetic person. Schools focus so much on arithmetic and squash the enjoyment of what mathematics is! A lot of it centers in patterns. My son was also a pattern noticer! I discussed the difference between mathematics and arithmetic in this post: http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/09/13/right-brained-math-concepts-to-facts/ Again, thanks for sharing your daughter’s journey! I’m sure it will help others as they notice the patterns (pun intended) in the natural journey to loving math!

  2. So interesting. the picture of your son laying down to inspect the trains is classic example of Autistic behavior these days, plus the love of trains.
    I do have lots of programming friends who did exactly what your programmer son was doing in their youth, less pretend play, more visual play.

    Did your math fanatic son ever have any speech delays?

    • You are right, Julie, about that “behavior” being something someone living with autism would do. And, indeed, he is diagnosed with high functioning autism. And, yes, he had speech delays/differences, but he also had chronic ear infections until 2 years old. At the time, I attributed it to that.

      As I look back at his overall journey with things, in this case, math, I can see how some of his interests or ways of interacting not only relate to autism, but it can be a typical valid way they developed their particular strengths and gifts as well. In this case, and in most cases with autism, I believe he is right-brained. I wrote a post trying to sift out various traits accordingly here: http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/03/12/is-aspergers-left-or-right-brained/ He wasn’t diagnosed until 5, so at the time, I just saw him as very meticulously interested in the various angles. And, truthfully, it certainly can contribute to a higher three-dimensionality and visual perspective-taking skills!

      As much as some of his autism symptoms still frustrate him in making certain things harder, he wonders if he would want to wish it away for himself because he doesn’t know if it has enhanced his natural gifts with computers and math. At this point, he accepts all that makes him who he is. Though he has had to work harder in some areas, it hasn’t effected his life goals yet. He currently works in a high paying computer field position.

  3. Thank you Cindy! It is great to hear grown up adults stories as I am surrounded by engineers in the Silicon valley and many of them did a lot of these more visual, non pretend activities, and today are very successful people…so it is important to identify all the kids with “different” brain who are so good at math…definitely you can’t call this population “disabled”…as some of them might lead to Mars one day! seems like most really gifted men in the valley are somewhere mildly on the spectrum..they don’t just follow the group, always deviate, always think “differently”.
    So…as you somehow note…HFA with great cognition is just a part of human variation.

    • Yep! Anything off what people consider “normal” seems to be hard to accept as actually, possibly a great thing. The school measuring stick is hard to shake. Just helping people know about creative children as having their own version of normal takes a lot of advocating, thus, why I called it the “right” side of “normal.” Neurodiversity is yet even another level of acceptance of what different thinkers offer the world. As my husband always say, “It takes a bit of crazy to be brilliant.” We accept our crazy (i.e., different) here…haha!

  4. Pingback: Honoring Both Math Minds | The Right Side of Normal

  5. Pingback: Is Formal Math Necessary? | The Right Side of Normal

  6. My son with Autism builds, but all his creations tend to be 2D. I’m not sure why since I suspect he is right brained. I’ve been trying to find ways to encourage his building. I’ve found YouTube Lego build videos. Any other ideas? Both my son’s are very much tower builders.

    • If you read my post here about autism (http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/03/12/is-aspergers-left-or-right-brained/), you will find I discovered that sometimes, with special needs, a right-brained dominant child may actually have some deficits in that area. Just because you are right-brained (or left-brained) dominant, doesn’t mean you won’t struggle with some things (or with some transitions). As I said about my theater son in that post, I specifically helped him learn certain right-brained dominant skills that he seemed to not pick up naturally, and yet, when I “tipped him off,” he took off in loving the skill or interest! So, you could sit down side by side with him and show him step by step how to build three-dimensionally. You might find once it clicks for him, he loves it and you opened up a door for him!

  7. Wow. This is interesting. The pictures of your son lying on the ground with the trains is JUST like my son. He is 5 and play with all of his cars, trains, dinosaurs the same way. He also built numbers in sequence with his wooden train tracks like your son did with the Lincoln Logs. This is SO helpful and will be really beneficial to me in how I teach him.

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