Teaching kids skills using a Bugs Theme for Pre-K and Kindergarten

kids learn lots of skills by learning through a bugs theme in pre-k and kindergarten
Photo by Drew Easley on Unsplash

Each month I plan a theme for preschool and kindergarten that targets a specific area of child development. Last month was mostly about social development, using a Valentines theme as the vehicle. This time, I’ve done a bugs theme for pre-k and kindergarten. Ewww, right?

Spring bugs unit for pre-k and kindergarten
Check out my Bugs unit!

(By the way, if you’d prefer to listen to the podcast version of this post instead of reading, the player is at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!)

Bugs are gross, right?

No way! Bugs are the perfect theme for preschoolers and kindergarten kids to learn some pretty complex things. Why? For starters, kids love them! Their curiosity and innate desire for learning are boosted when they are excited by something. Engagement = check! Teaching other skills through a bugs theme for pre-k and kindergarten gives you a hidden advantage…

Bugs help kids learn about numbers…and it’s all about hiding the vegies!

In early childhood settings, whether that’s in an early childhood centre, in home day care or a kindergarten classroom, we are trying to expose kids to the basics. It’s not about hard academics, but gentle absorption. To that end, we always use things that interest and excite them, then we sneak skills in with the fun stuff! Kinda like I used to sneak vegies into my kids’ dinner without them knowing!

This month’s unit is mostly numeracy-based. I’m primarily a literacy gal, so of course there’s some literacy in there but there’s a time for everything, and bugs just cry out to be used for numeracy concepts like counting and sorting! So, this unit is about hiding the vegies! The maths concepts ‘hidden’ in this unit are-

  • learning to recognise some numerals
  • building 1-to-1 correspondence (matching one object to one count or spoken numeral)
  • early counting
  • using concrete materials to represent number
  • matching object attributes (for example, finding all the blue buttons, stacking the big blocks, etc)
  • matching (things that are exactly the same, shapes with their silhouettes, not-quite-identical things)
  • what a ten frame is
  • the beginnings of subitising (again, just for exposure – subitising usually happens between K-2)
learning about the natural world teaches kids lots of skills through a bugs theme
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Why do these skills matter and what on earth does this have to do with bugs?

Building solid early numeracy skills is really important to later skill development. We don’t need to push them hard in Early Childhood though – exposure is the name of the game! The more kids see and hear language and have experiences with counting and number the more chance they have to build schema around them so when the time comes to really work on them they will have a little bit of a head start. And, as I mentioned last month, the theme is just the vehicle. The bugs are just how we get the fun stuff happening!

When should my kids be counting?

There’s no hard and fast rules about when a child has to be able to count (in an early childhood context) but, like literacy, the more positive early exposure a child has prior to starting school, the easier it will be for them when it does matter.

You’ll notice I say ‘positive’ experience – pressure or over-the-top expectations on a child to learn something are NEVER useful. Exposure to numeracy concepts might be as simple as an educator counting out loud as they stack blocks with kids or singing number songs or working out how many cups they need for all the kids. It means using number in everyday situations (naturally and informally) and using the language of number when an appropriate situation arises.

Think alouds are gold when it comes to learning!

Think alouds are great for this. A think aloud means explicitly voicing the mental process you are using yourself. For example, I might be trying to work out how many chairs we need for lunch, so I might say out loud, “I need to know how many kids we have here today so I’d better count them first. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. There are eight kids here, so I’ll need eight chairs. Hmm…there are four spaces at this table so I’ll need four chairs here…one, two, three, four. Then, I’ll need another four at the next table…one, two, three, four. That’s eight. We have enough chairs.”

That whole process usually occurs in our heads, and much faster than it takes to say it all out loud! But, it shows kids HOW to think, what processes they can follow in their own minds. If they can see how adults process these things, they can learn how to problem solve for themselves.

Another example – I wonder how many blocks we can stack up before they fall over? Let’s see…one, two (etc) six – we made it to six before they tipped over! This is how kids learn 1-to-1 correspondence, through lots of supported experiences.

a counting activity about bugs for pre-k and kindergarten
Counting is more fun with bugs!

Think alouds are easy and fit naturally into so many play experiences. And it really helps kids to see the thought processes behind our actions and experiences. We can use think alouds any time we want to model any kind of problem-solving strategies for kids, not just for numeracy. Think of it as narrating your inner thoughts, your self-talk while you do your own problem solving. I use think alouds all the time when reading with kids, and you probably do it too, without realising! Any time you say things like, “I wonder what will happen next?” or “What do you think that character is feeling right now?” you’re using a think aloud.

What else is important when it comes to early numeracy?

Kids of this age are still very concrete – they can’t yet think in abstract terms so we need to give them lots of experience with materials such as counters and other objects they can physically manipulate or move their body with. They provide a framework for kids to build their learning around.

a colour matching activity in a bugs theme for pre-k and kindergarten
Concrete materials help with early numeracy

For example, I work with a little one who walks up or down stairs with an accompanying verbal utterance that sounds like counting. It’s very common, and it’s the beginning of a mental process that leads to 1-to- correspondence. He likes to ‘count’ the steps up to the nappy change bench. Each step he takes, he says, “Uh,” and he’s showing that he thinks that’s what we do – when we climb the stairs, we count them. He’s building a schema for climbing stairs. We want to help kids build schemas for counting, so we count – at first to them, then later with them, until they learn to do it for themselves. We support them at the level they need, and get them ready to take the next step themselves when they’re ready.

What is a schema?

The word ‘schema’ refers to the mental process we all go through to structure our experiences of the world. As a child, we see a dog, we are told that it’s a dog so until we learn otherwise, we think that all four-legged, hairy things are dogs. Then we see a cat. We might say, ‘dog’ until someone corrects us. We then reshape our dog schema to exclude cats, and we create a cat schema to structure this new learning. The more a child experiences the world, the more refined their schemas will be and the more background knowledge they have to shape their learning. That’s a really good thing. We want our kids to have many, many rich and meaningful learning experiences.

Kids need lots of chances to play with objects of varying attributes like colour, shape and size. That’s where matching and sorting come in. That can be as simple as getting them to pick up all the red blocks when you’re packing away, or you can use an activity like the ones below, which is designed specifically for kids to sort objects according to their colour. Click on the pictures below to take a look.

a colour sorting activity in a bugs theme for pre-k and kindergarten
Sorting by attribute helps kids develop schemas around numeracy

Kids need to try and fit things into containers to learn what will fit and what won’t. You can’t do that without concrete materials. And enclosing things leads to being able to use ten frames and groupings. Ten frames are great for building basic number sense. Using a ten frame helps kids to ‘see’ numbers represented, and while it’s more abstract than using concrete materials, it’s a more logical representation of a count than a numeral. The Bugs Colour-by-number Activity below introduces ten frames as a key for colouring. It’s a simple way to introduce them without pressure. Exposure, remember?

An easy introduction to ten frames

That’s how we learn, when we’re elbows deep in it. And when it comes to maths, repetition is king. It’s not a one-and-done deal. Maths can be tough – some of us need lots of repetitions for numeracy concepts to sink in (yep, that’s me right there with my hand up and a confused expression on my face!).

But what about the bugs?

Now, you might have noticed I’ve hardly mentioned bugs. The theme for this month’s unit is bugs, but that’s not what it’s really about – it’s about developing numeracy concepts and building schemas, but the kids don’t know that, they just know that they like bugs.

See? It’s all about hiding the vegies!

The pictures below will take you to the products mentioned in this post. If you’d like to try a freebie, there’s a link for that below, plus there’s more freebies in my TPT store. I hope you’ve found this post helpful – please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

spring bugs unit for pre-k and kindergarten
colour sorting caterpillar activity for pre-k and kindergarten
spring bugs colour by number activity for pre-k and kindergarten

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    P.S. If you’d prefer to listen to the podcast version of this post, the player is below. Enjoy!

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