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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 primarily fun. It’s not something normally associated with math. During the activity, the child actually acquires knowledge and information almost without realizing it, as a kind of byproduct of the pleasant experience in which he is engaged.
Arguably, the most effective type of incidental learning takes place when young children are engaged in activities that can be described as play. The trick is to bring the knowledge they have acquired incidentally to the level of consciousness so that they consciously appropriate what they have unconsciously learned.
This contrasts with setting clear learning objectives at the start of a lesson, which in itself is excellent practice and very common in schools. Incidental learning opportunities present much more challenges for the teacher and therefore generally tend to be much less common.
I would say a lot of our learning is nonconscious. Schools, for example, use screens to communicate information to children. This type of “information immersion” is put to good use by advertisers. Think of how easily children “learn” a pop tune or song. Television can also be a source of incidental learning although, like screens, it is more passive. Incidental learning is much more effective when children are actively involved in the process.
Some time ago, I involved my students in science learning through drama. It proved to be 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 that my inspiration for this project was taken from an episode of Sergeant Bilko called “Platoon In The Movies” where Bilko commandeered a camera and created his own movie called “The Little Spark Plug” with Doberman as the take. Colonel Hall’s wife was so delighted that she was able to recite verbatim how to change a spark plug much to the Colonel’s amazement.
By ‘playing’ with the fishing rods, young children will have made many important discoveries:
 Rods of the same color are also of equal length.

Stems of the same length are of equal color.

Rods of different colors have different lengths.

It is possible to make equal lengths by putting a few rods end to end.
 Some children will begin to demonstrate an understanding of the commutative property of addition at an early stage. for example, red plus yellow equals yellow plus red (r + y = y + r) or numerically (although the number is not introduced at this point) 2 + 5 = 5 + 2
This way, kids will start acquiring their digital bonds without even realizing it. They will avoid the horrible necessity of finger counting because they will “see” numbers as whole entities and not as a combination of disparate units.
Later, when asked what two numbers are ten or “what do I add to 1, 2, 3…to make ten,” children can visualize the pattern. Fingers will certainly not be necessary!
In our next article, we begin to explore the connection between math and language development by introducing the vocabulary children will need to express their creation in written form.
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