One of my threenager’s (yes, I said “threenager”) favorite things to do is go to the zoo. Particularly to see the alligators and caimans. As he watches these creatures I have a habit of asking, “Which is bigger?” or “Which is smaller?” These characterizations, called attributes, are often the first way toddlers learn to compare objects. From there, they begin to quantify (How much bigger? or How much smaller?) and realize there is a need for numbers when comparing.
Yet all too often, our smart little toddlers overgeneralize and decide that EVERYTHING has an attribute of “big” (or “small”). For example, my little will tell his older brother, “You are bigger than me.” But what does he mean? Does he mean he weighs more? Is taller? Is older? Has more body hair? Each of these measures has a different attribute. In fact, Vygotsky stated that the way in which we talk about quantities and the relations between them can have a strong impact on how children think about quantities. And quantifying each of these attributes requires a different type of measurement.
My point? How we communicate with our littles makes a HUGE difference in how they look at comparing and relating objects. Not everything is bigger or smaller. Start using different attributes and introduce them to a wonderful world of vocab that will help them articulate exactly what they want to compare. For example, you are at the grocery store getting apples. Yes, have her point out the colors. Yes, have her count as you put the apples in the bag. But take it one step further. As you are waiting in line, have her hold the bag of apples versus the bag of green beans and decide which is heavier. Or which has more items. Which item is longer. Which item is wider. You get my drift.
Mathematics is not just about numbers. It also relies heavily on one’s ability to compare, estimate and see relationships, with or without numbers. Number is simply an extension of more basic ideas about relationships between quantities. Even if your child doesn’t know their numbers, you can start comparing objects NOW.
Great reference for teachers of Pre-K and Kinder:Developing Essential Understanding of Number and Numeration, NCTM (2011).