Incidental Learning – How Children Learn Math 3

What exactly is incidental learning? Incidental learning occurs when a child is engaged in an activity that is essentially fun. This is not something normally associated with math. During the course of the activity the child is actually acquiring knowledge and information almost without realising it, as a sort of by-product of the enjoyable experience in which they are engaged.

Arguably the most effective kind of incidental learning takes place when young children are engaged in activities that can best be described as play. The trick is to draw the knowledge they have acquired incidentally to the level of conscious awareness so they take conscious ownership of what they have un-consciously learnt.

This is in contrast to setting clear learning objectives at the outset of a lesson which is itself an excellent practice and very commonplace in schools. Incidental learning opportunities present far more of a challenge for the teacher and therefore generally tend to be far less common.

I would argue that much of our learning is non-conscious. Schools, for example, make use of displays to communicate information to children. This kind of ‘information immersion’ is used to good effect by advertisers. Just think how easily children ‘learn’ a tune or pop-song. Television can also be a source of incidental learning although, as with displays, of the more passive variety. Incidental learning is far more effective when children are actively engaged in the process.

Some time ago I involved my students in learning science through the medium of drama. It proved extremely effective and the children involved understood and retained quite difficult concepts because they had been actively involved in an enjoyable experience.

I must confess my inspiration for this project was drawn from an episode of Sergeant Bilko entitled ‘Platoon In The Movies’ where Bilko commandeered a camera and created his own movie entitled ‘The Little Spark Plug’ featuring Doberman as the plug. Colonel Hall’s wife was so enraptured that she was able to recite verbatim how to change a spark plug much to the colonel’s astonishment.

Whilst ‘playing’ with the rods young children will have made many important discoveries:

  1. Rods of the same color are also equal in length.
  2. Rods of the same length are equal in color.
  3. Rods of different colors have different lengths.
  4. It is possible to make equal lengths by putting some rods end to end.
  5. Some children will begin to demonstrate an understanding of the commutative property of addition at an early stage. e.g. red plus yellow equals yellow plus red (r + y = y + r ) or numerically (although number is not introduced at this stage) 2 + 5 = 5 + 2

In this way children will begin to acquire their number bonds without even realizing it. They will avoid the horrible necessity of counting on fingers because they will ‘see’ numbers as whole entities and not a combination of disparate units.

At a later stage, when they are asked what two numbers make ten or ‘what must I add to 1, 2, 3… to make ten’, children will be able to visualize the pattern. Fingers will definitely not be needed!

In our next article we begin to explore the link between math and language development as we introduce the vocabulary children will need to express their creation in a written form.


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