Maths for young and old

Interest in mathematics has exploded in Norway’s nursery school. With a section of its own in the new framework plan, this subject has become a national commitment in which the University of Stavanger has every reason to take pride.

Maths has long been marginalised in Norwegian early-years education, with many teachers in this sector turning up their noses at the thought of long sums with adding and subtraction.

But the picture is now changing, as a growing number of nursery educators come to appreciate how the subject can be used in their schools.

- Maths for little children is not about memorising numbers and doing big sums,explains Elin Reikerås, associate professor in special needs education at the University of Stavanger’s National Centre for Reading Education and Research.

She is one of the real enthusiasts pushing for more maths to be incorporated in early-years education and in the training of nursery school teachers.

Her collaborators are Janne Fauskanger, assistant professor in the department of education, and Reidar Mosvold, a new associate professor in the department of early childhood education.

She and Prof Fauskanger have worked for and with maths in nursery schools over more than a decade, while Prof Mosvold’s PhD thesis dealt with the subject of maths in everyday life.

- Things have really changed, agrees Prof Reikerås.

- The negative attitude towards maths for small children has gone, and more and more nursery schools are making a commitment in this area.  We’ve noted an incredible demand for courses and guidance from early-years teachers and parents.”

It is not long since maths was put on an equal footing with the rest of the curriculum for early-years teacher training, and the subject is now part of the new framework plan for nursery schools.

- The consultation paper on the this plan, included maths under a number of the other subjects, says Prof Fauskanger.

- We were only asked to write a separate chapter on it at the last minute.

Both she and Prof Reikerås are proud that their subject has found a separate place in the plan, which was adopted last spring.

- We were actually a little surprised that this happened, says Prof Reikerås.

- In political terms, it was an important signal.

In his lectures to students of early-years education, Prof Mosvild emphasises the value of challenging children through the use of mathematical concepts in play and activities.

- We teach them how they can use maths in everyday circumstances. This could involve using abacuses as well as various games, figures and forms.

Petter Emberland, who teaches at Ree nursery school in Bryne outside Stavanger, works with maths every day and is convinced that the children enjoy it.

- When we tell the story of the three billy-goats Gruff, we emphasis which of them is the largest, the medium-sized and the smallest. The children also learn the difference between being on and under the bridge.

- We sometimes cover the whole floor of the school with geometrical forms, and then ask the children to step only on circles, squares or triangles. They think that’s fun.

- Just laying the table can be an interesting activity, where the children need to be able to count.

The goal of maths teaching in the nursery school is to encourage little children to think of it as a useful subject. Becoming familiar with mathematical terms at an early age will also ease the transition to primary school. '

- When kids experience maths as useful and fun though play and activities, they’ll retain that attitude in later life, says Prof Fauskanger enthusiastically.

- I want all children to turn up proudly on their first day at primary school and say ‘I know how to do maths’.

Prof Reikerås, whose everyday work focuses on children with mathematical difficulties, also believes that youngsters have the right to be helped to develop their abilities in this area. '

- Being introduced to maths at an early age is closely related to their oral language development. They gain necessary experience with maths through play, too. When adults know a lot about the subject, they’ll be able to teach it more easily.

Prof Mosvold agrees:

- Maths in nursery schools and in training early-years teachers is about facilitating children’s learning. You have to know your stuff then.

Come far
Time local authority, which includes Bryne, has come a long way in the work of introducing maths to nursery schools and is involved in a joint project with the Gjesdal and Sola authorities.

- Through this ‘maths guest’ scheme, all three councils are focusing on mathematical difficulties and games in nursery schools, reports Petter Emberland, who has been active in the work.

Another project which aims to put maths on the map is the “Gröbels master builder” construction scheme, which will be part of a major exhibition in the Sandnes Science Centre.

- The goal of this project is play with mathematical forms, explains Prof Fauskanger.

- We’re cooperating with the science centre over a 2008 display where children create structures with building blocks.

Prof Reikerås is currently working on the development of observational materials for identifying how children develop their mathematical understanding between the ages of two and five.

The Mathematics Between Individual and Surroundings (MIO) tool will be used to say what such youngsters can grasp in terms of mathematical concepts.

Another area of interest is the transition between nursery and primary schools, Prof Fauskanger reports. Closer collaboration between teachers and parents will ease this change-over.

Prof Mosvold is also concerned with the way maths takes shape in schools. His PhD thesis concluded that the subject often acquires a theoretical slant.

- Maths in the nursery school is more practical because it’s incorporated in everyday activities. Further up the system, this gives way to a lot of rote teaching. That’s why many pupils find maths hard.

By learning mathematical concepts at a young age, however, children will more easily see how this subject is part of their everyday lives. And this is not hard, Prof Fauskanger believes.

- We only need to give children a choice. Being allowed to choose how many bites an apple should be divided into is interesting enough in itself, she says.

- Discovering how three bites of an apple could be turned into six represents a fine challenge for a curious pupil who’s eager to learn.

Text: Silje Stangeland
Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen