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Early years maths: Are we letting our boys down?

24-Jul-17
Article By: Michaela Mildenhall

Despite the recent shortening gap between girls’ and boys’ grades in most early years subjects, maths is considered the one area where the boys are still continually lagging.

Credit: Oksana Kuzmina/ Shutterstock.com

So, do we need to rethink the way we approach maths for boys at pre-school age?’ Jo Baranek, the lead early years advisor at the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) certainly thinks so.

“When we look at the results for the past few years there is a clear difference between the level of attainment of boys and girls, but why is this?” she said.

“Is this because we are not enabling our environment for our male learners enough to make a difference? I believe this is part of the problem.”

‘It makes adults shake in their shoes’: Practitioners have a fear of maths too

According to statistics in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), a government handbook to support practitioners in making accurate judgements on attainment, there is a very distinct gap in learning between boys and girls at pre-school age in maths subjects.

Figures from 2015 to 2016 suggest that a quarter of boys at reception age are not achieving the expected level in numbers. Some 22 per cent are also not achieving in shape, space and measure.

This compares to 17 per cent of girls not achieving in numbers and 14 per cent not achieving in shape, space and measure for the same age range and period. For most other subjects, the gender gap is slowly decreasing.

Ms Baranek strongly believes that the approach and environment for learning maths needs rethinking to help boys with maths at pre-school age. She suggests that the subject can be daunting for many practitioners too, leading them to stick to a more rigid way of teaching the subject.

Ms Baranek explains: “Maths is an area that many of us shy away from, and many dislike even using the word maths. It can make adults shake in their shoes.

“This makes many practitioners shy away from actively using maths throughout the setting and they will stick to specific planned maths activities. Boys do not always thrive with this type of approach."

Credit: Jo Baranek

Ms Baranek has always had a passion for the subject. She started her career as a primary school teacher, eventually moving on to the early years sector, where she has remained ever since. She specialised in maths and science for her degree, and her love of these subjects has followed her into the early years environment.

According to Ms Baranek, she’s now ‘found her calling’ by “supporting, teaching and mentoring others about how important it is to let children of this age learn through play.”

One boy liked to ‘measure and compare how far he and his friends could jump’

Ms Baranek has been pivotal in the NDNA’s ‘Maths Champions’ programme, which aims to inspire pre-school children to take more of an interest in maths by providing a better environment for learning, and, also by incorporating maths into play and everyday activities.

The programme is coming to the end of a year-long research programme via the Education Endowment Foundation, and the results and implications of the programme will be available later this year and early next year.

Ms Baranek remembers how one boy on the scheme took a shine to maths after trying a different approach.

She said: “I visited one of my ‘Maths Champions’ settings recently and one boy was especially interested in maths and was achieving well above his perceived age bracket within the EYFS. However, the staff had not picked up on this prior to him joining the programme as he hadn’t had the opportunity to show his skills.

“In fact, the boy in question was soon to demonstrate that he was actually more than adept at counting to large numbers, supporting his younger peers to count, making complex patterns and recognising and describing simple and more complex shapes.”

According to Ms Baranek, this had all been discovered through active play, with the boy’s favourite activity being “the measurement and comparison of how far he and his friends could jump.”

Credit: Beneda Miroslav/ Shutterstock.com

Another way of incorporating maths into activities, which is particularly useful for active boys who are always racing around with bikes and scooters is to “use a tape measure and stopwatch to time who is quickest and who can drive the slowest,” suggests Ms Baranek.

“They will need to measure a track out and then time each other, after this logging down the results and working out which order they all came in.”

Ms Baranek's tips for teaching boys ‘maths on the go’ using props around the house given by parents to nurseries

• Use ‘full’, ‘empty’ and ‘half full’ images with corresponding words on the sides of sand trays and water containers. These can be added to the wall nearby if this is easier. This will prompt staff to use the language more

• Recipe books in role play areas are a way to get children using practical maths for something they particularly love, food

• Have plenty of weighing scales and measuring jugs in the role play area

• Have plenty of clocks in the role play area

• Make sure there are some clocks that are specially designated for children to take apart

• Provide plenty of measuring tapes for outdoors as well as indoors to help children become ‘maths champions’. Children can access them easily, and will enjoy going around measuring everything around them

• Make your own recipe book for the mud area

• Add plenty of weighing scales and measuring jugs into the mud area- works well with the recipe books tip too

• Take simple photos of wooden block constructions and make a book for your children to match the shapes and follow instructions – get the children to make their own and take pictures for their friends. You can also do this with Lego, Duplo etc

• Outdoor number lines made out of outdoor materials are good for active children.

Tips like this are simple for practitioners to build easily into everyday activities to increase boys’ interest in maths. According to Ms Baranek, “Maths needs to be embedded across all areas of the provision, not isolated into one particular area. This will help to engage more children, especially those boys who may avoid sit down activities.”

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