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The importance of developing the mathematical concept of pattern

Research has determined that a child’s mathematical concept of pattern is one of the best indicators of future success in mathematics. So how can early childhood educators ensure that quality pattern learning occurs?

The importance of developing the mathematical concept of pattern in early childhood

Why is understanding pattern important?

Research has determined that a child’s mathematical concept of pattern is one of the best indicators of future success in mathematics (Rittle-Johnson, et al., 2019). Mathematics has often been referred to as the study of patterns. Patterning is found in:

  • sequencing
  • classification
  • counting and numbers
  • multiplication and division
  • spatial arrays or geometric patterns
  • rotations and slides in spatial understanding
  • equivalence
  • problem solving
  • algebra
Mathematics has often been referred to as the study of patterns

Teaching patterns

Patterning is underpinned by the following skills and concepts:

  • being able to differentiate between colours, shapes and size
  • understanding that a pattern repeats
  • being able to identify a sequence and predict how a pattern will continue
  • understanding that something is symmetrical if it is made up of exactly similar parts facing each other
  • being able to make up a mathematical rule to create a pattern.

Educators should plan specific experiences and guide mathematical discussions for quality pattern learning to occur. Clements and Sarama (2009) note that case studies revealed that teachers thought the mathematical concept of patterning was important but limited pattern opportunities were provided.

Learning sequence for developing pattern concepts

Identifying patterns – Patterns occur in nature, structures, plants, and animals. Children should be provided with experiences that enable them to notice patterns in colours, shapes, sounds, routines, size, etc. Look for patterns around the room on windows, doors, tiles, wallpaper, clothes, wrapping paper. Go on a walk to look for patterns outside on pavers, roof tiles, fences, bricks, flowers, leaves, spiderwebs, butterflies, washing hanging on a line. Take photos to discuss and reflect on later. Do they recognise the repetition of these items? Can they articulate the patterns they observe?

Assembling fruit kebabs
encourages children to consider the
repeating pattern of the fruit.

Matching and extending patterns – You could provide pattern cards, beads, blocks, buttons, etc. which encourage children to model, match or extend these patterns with hands-on materials. You could sing, use musical instruments or clap a pattern for the children to follow.  Their experiences of matching and extending patterns are typically more frequently replicated with repeating patterns. But, you can also highlight growing patterns  in each stage of the learning sequence.

Creating patterns – Children begin to invent their own patterns. Encourage children to explain and identify the unit of repeat in their patterns to each other and the teacher. The unit of repeat is the essential element of the pattern that is repeated to make it a pattern. For example, the unit of repeat in: AABAABAAB is AAB and can be repeated at either end. Children can create the same pattern using different materials (e.g. blocks, beads, shapes) or different patterns (e.g. ABCC, ABC, AB) using the same materials. Encourage children to compare and contrast their patterns. What is the same about these patterns? What is different about these patterns? A sense of equality is taking shape.

Nature provides an abundance of resources on the mathematical concept of pattern for children to use to create their own repeating patterns. The following activities take full advantage of these natural resources and make the most of outdoor space with ideas for creating patterns on a large scale. 

These activities take full advantage of these natural resources

Patterns with several attributes – Once children explore one attribute that creates a pattern, two or more attributes contributing to a pattern can be highlighted. For example, children begin to notice one blue square, one yellow square, two blue squares, two yellow squares, etc. In this example the number and the colour change but the shape remains constant. Children also explore a sense of equality in the number of items that are forming the pattern.

From here children can move on to simple number patterns and then on to extending and explaining growing patterns.

Does the pattern continue from one child to the next?

The language of patterning

Early maths concepts are embedded in language. Understanding and using a range of vocabulary to support patterning helps children make connections between the world and mathematical concepts.

Key wordsSample questions
before, after, next, betweenWhat comes next/before/after? How do you know?
same, differentAre these patterns the same? What is different? Can you make these the same? How did you do that?
start, finishCan you finish the pattern?
first, middle, last, second, third …Can you make me a pattern where the second bead is blue? Can you clap your pattern? What would you do first? Second?
copy, repeat, matchHow can we repeat this pattern?

It is also important to reinforce spontaneous moments of patterning and capitalise on child initiated activities, as well as plan teacher-led learning. Introducing children to the mathematical concept of pattern in an interesting and enjoyable way, helps to establish a strong foundation to mathematics education.

This article was based on content from the popular Essential Resources titles Maths is All Around You, Engaging with Mathematics through Picture Books and Developing Early Maths Skills Outdoors. For more discussion and ideas, see Marianne Knaus’ article Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths and our other articles on mathematical concepts.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Zippert, E.L., Boice, K. L. (2019). The roles of patterning and spatial skills in early mathematics development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. DOI: 10.1016 j.ecresq.2018.03.0
Sarama, J. & Clements, D. 2009. Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children. New York: Routledge.


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