Yesterday, Kiddo and I had a lot of fun playing "Dino Drop", a game that supports early math learning. Dino Drop offers the child a chance to count, teaches awareness of boundaries, and can be used to introduce the symbols and concepts of "plus", "minus" and "equals" in a way that can be adapted to the child's level of ability.
Before I tell you how to make and play this game, I want to give you a quick background on it. The first time I encountered this game, it was in the most simple form: a large square drawn in the center of a piece of paper. The child drops a number of small toys onto the paper, then counts how many have landed "inside" the square, then how many have landed "outside" the square and finally, how many toys there are altogether. Because children all have differing levels of activity and interests, this game can be adapted in a variety of ways, and I'll have suggestions for adaptation at the end of this post.
For now, though, I'll share with you what we did and my scripting, because how we say what we are saying is important in teaching these concepts.
1. First, we arranged the 'play area'. For Dino Drop (which is the name I gave this version, to spark Kiddo's curiosity), I used a larger piece of paper and we drew a volcano on it. Kiddo gave me lots of directions on how much lava we needed to color in, then wanted to draw the boulders himself. We had lots of boulders coming down from the volcano and plenty of red hot lava.
2. Next, I had Kiddo gather up a nice pile of small toy dinosaurs, the kind you can buy for about a dollar at the toy store. (Note: the size of your manipulative toy should determine the size of your play area, which is why we had a large piece of paper.)
3. Have a second sheet handy for writing out your equations. You can make this with columns and icons, or keep it simple.
4. Now, Kiddo drops a collection of dinos onto the paper. The game begins.
Parent: How many dinosaurs landed on the volcano?
Child: Five. (Parent should double check amounts each time; if a child can sight count their amounts correctly, great. If the child is incorrect, point-and-count each toy to ensure 1-t0-1 ratio counting; correction is important.)
Parent: There are Five dinosaurs on the volcano. Say this as you write the number.
Parent: How many dinosaurs are not on the volcano?
Parent: And there are three dinos off the volcano. Draw a 'plus' sign as you say "and", then the numeral three.
Parent: Now, how many dinos are there all together?
Parent: Right. (or correct, if needed, then-) Five dinos on the volcano and three dinos off the volcano makes/equals eight dinosaurs all together. Parent should point to each numeral in the sequence, the plus sign as we say "and" and the "equal" sign as we say "makes/equals", then the sum.
I strongly recommend working with the same number of toys for at least three or four turns; thus, the child can learn that five and three make eight, as well as four and four, one and seven, zero and eight, etc. After three or four turns, then offer to add more dinos to the total, or decrease the amount. I suggest starting with an amount between four and ten dinos, depending on how proficient your child is at counting. This activity should be fun and slightly challenging, not discouraging. If your child has trouble counting correctly, start smaller because you will need to point and count all of the items each time. Children who have more practice and some ability to sight count will enjoy larger amounts a bit more. As stated earlier, we are teaching math equations, so always correct any mistakes in counting. We don't want to teach the child incorrectly, nor do we need to say "no, that's wrong"; instead, a simple "let's count that again" and pointing to each object while re-counting will keep the game moving along pleasantly.
Now that you have the basic idea, this game can be played backward, introducing the 'minus' symbol.
Parent: How many dinos do we have here? (looking for a total number of dinos.)
Parent: We have seven dinos all together. (Writes this down)
Parent: Dino Drop! (or whatever fun direction you can think of. Child drops dinos.)
Parent: How many dinos landed in the volcano?
Parent: Four dinos are in the volcano. Adult writes a minus sign and then a four.
Parent: How many are outside the volcano?
Child: Three. Parent writes an "equal" sign and a three.
Parent: Right. Seven dinos take away (or, 'minus') four dinos leaves/equals three dinos. Once again, point to each part of the equation as you read it to your child.
Although I first played this game as an oral counting game, what intrigued me about it were three things: first, through the writing of the equations and the scripting, we are providing our children with an opportunity to become familiar with the most basic math symbols; second, this game gives us a chance to introduce the number value of 'zero', which isn't where we usually teach our kids to start counting (at the real beginning); and as I mentioned before, the simplicity of the game itself opens it up to endless imaginative adaptations.
Now that you know the ways this game may be played, here are some adaptations:
Busy learners can work big: I once played this game with a boy who loved matchbox cars. We flew them off a ramp to a counting area consisting of a rug and a towel spread out on the floor. We counted how many landed on the towel and how many on the remaining floor area.
Throwing soft cloth balls or pompoms/cotton balls from a designated line into a pan or basket. How many in, how many out, how many all together?
Launch paper airplanes: how many can make it across a line of tape on the floor? How many landed in front of the tape? How many planes all together?
Roll some nuts or marbles down a makeshift ramp: you can use either a line for them to cross (how many in front of the line? how many behind?) or have a landing area for the items to potentially drop into. This could be a place mat on a blanket or a pan from the kitchen--sometimes the nuts will bounce out, which is also pretty entertaining if you use mixed, unshelled nuts, because the kids can make predictions too, based on the shape and size of the nut and what they've previously observed.
On a blanket/cloth, spread out a necklace into a circle or other shape and then drop an amount of bigger beads onto it. How many landed inside the necklace/outside?, etc. Buttons can be used for this, too.
Ribbons or laces or feathers (nearly any sewing notion) can be used this way too.
You can see, nearly any smaller manipulative can become a prop for this game, and any variety of household items (place mats, paper plates, sheet of foil...anything) can become the landing pad. As I mentioned before, the size of the landing pad should easily accommodate the size of the prop as well as the level of activity/busyness. When children master counting items up to ten, feel free to work up to fifteen, then twenty. This is great practice for counting, which most pre-K children need.
Also, give the game a name appropriate to the activity. I called this one Dino Drop because we used toy dinosaurs. "Ball in the Basket", "Nut in the Pan", "Car Ramp Fliers"... use your imagination, or have your child make up a name for it. Make the game as busy or silly as it needs to be. Some busy children will enjoy hopping on one foot as they toss a pompom or blowing feathers or balloons in the air to maneuver them into a target space before they fall. (Let them use straws to direct their air flow if you like for the feathers.) You can make this game as simple or as fascinatingly complex as you choose. The most important part of teaching early learners is, of course, the potential to have fun, so try to construct a game that's right for its environment and eliminate as many 'no's' or redirections as possible.
One word of warning: kids do best with this game when they work with us one-on-0ne, or as a team. I found with my preschoolers that doing this activity as a group sit-down was very boring for the kids who weren't dropping and counting the props. We could do it well as a group activity if all the kids got to roll some of the nuts down the ramp and if we all did the counting aloud. Just something to consider... Otherwise, this is a very engaging way to teach essential skills. Please add a comment if you have other adaptations of this game. I'm always open to new ideas!
Also, check out MathArts by MaryAnn Kohl and Cynthia Gainer. Just about any book of MaryAnn's is highly recommended, and MathArts has a lot of easy ways to teach elemental math concepts to preschoolers and kindergarteners. Any parent with a child who has a love for art can use this book to introduce concepts we might not think to explore on our own. MaryAnn's mantra is "it's the process, not the product" and the activities suggested in her books are real winners. A truly lovely resource!