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Incidental Learning – How Children Learn Math 3
What exactly is incidental learning? Incidental learning occurs when a child engages in an activity that is essentially fun. This is not something normally associated with mathematics. During the course of the activity, the child acquires knowledge and information almost without realizing it, as a kind of byproduct of the pleasant experience in which he is involved.
Arguably, the most effective type of incidental learning occurs when young children engage in activities that can best be described as play. The trick is to draw the knowledge they have acquired incidentally into the level of conscious awareness so that they take conscious ownership of what they have learned unconsciously.
This contrasts with setting clear learning objectives at the beginning of a lesson which in itself is excellent practice and very common in schools. Incidental learning opportunities represent a much greater challenge for the teacher and therefore tend to be much less frequent.
I would say that much of our learning is unconscious. Schools, for example, use screens to communicate information to children. Advertisers use this type of “information immersion.” Think how easily children “learn” a tune or a pop song. Television can also be a source of incidental learning although, as with screens, of the more passive variety. Incidental learning is much more effective when children are actively involved in the process.
Some time ago I involved my students in learning science through theater. It proved extremely effective and the children involved understood and retained quite difficult concepts because they had actively participated in an enjoyable experience.
I must confess that my inspiration for this project was taken from an episode of Sergeant Bilko entitled “Platoon In The Movies” where Bilko asked for a camera and created his own movie entitled “The Little Spark Plug” with Doberman as a plug. Colonel Hall’s wife was so in a daze that she was able to recite verbatim how to change a spark plug much to the Colonel’s amazement.
While “playing” with the wands, young children will have made many important discoveries:
 Rods of the same color are also the same length.

Rods of the same length are the same color.

Different colored rods have different lengths.

It is possible to make equal lengths by placing rods end to end.
 Some children will begin to demonstrate an understanding of the commutative property of addition at an early stage. e.g. ex. red plus yellow equals yellow plus red (r + y = y + r ) or numerically (although the number is not entered at this stage) 2 + 5 = 5 + 2
This way children will start to acquire their number links without even realizing it. They will avoid the dreaded need to count on their fingers because they will “see” numbers as whole entities and not as a combination of different units.
At a later stage, when asked which two numbers make ten or ‘what do I add to 1, 2, 3… to make ten’, children will be able to visualize the pattern. Fingers definitely won’t be necessary!
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 written form.
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