There are a couple good reasons to develop early math skills that can’t be ignored. We know that many children, especially those from low income and minority groups, experience math challenges in school. We also know that preschool children possess surprisingly complex abilities that are expressed through everyday activities. It only makes sense to capitalize on these abilities, to give children a jump start that may be just what they need to sail right past those future difficulties.
When using the term “teaching,” I’m sure some may misinterpret. For preschoolers, I am not suggesting or promoting elementary math or sitting down for a group lesson. Rather, it is the kind of math learning that young children can experience through play.
Research tells us that when a child’s first math experiences are derived from self-directed play activities that involve problem solving, skills are learned and foundations are established. Interestingly, during these years of significant brain development, learning experiences that are personally meaningful to the child will affect the brain’s structure and organization.
What can these experiences look like? Well, they will, of course, involve movement and sensory input, because this is the way preschoolers learn best. Within the parameters of play, they can experience sorting, counting, patterns, shapes, estimating, and measuring. Even classroom routines can offer rich learning experiences:
How many steps does it take to get to the sink?
Counting napkins for snack
Are there more green or more yellow carpet squares in the circle?
Is a graham cracker broken into pieces really more than a whole one?
All manner of manipulatives and toys are equally useful:
Who has the most cars?
Bead stringing in patterns
Comparing piles of objects tested for floating and sinking
Experimenting with symmetry, parallelism, horizontal lines, and length with unit blocks
Making geometric shapes with geoboards
Counting and grouping using computer software
What is the teacher’s role? First, the teacher will prepare the classroom for learning. The environment needs to be intentional. It should lend itself to discovery, creativity, exploration, and problem solving. Some activities and materials provided should specifically deal with math, like number cards, board games, and dice.
There should also be open-ended “stuff,” like cardboard boxes, tubes, unit blocks, string, playdough, buttons, marbles, tape, craft sticks, colored water and eyedroppers, different sized containers, and the like. These types of materials can actually be more valuable, because they stimulate complex activities, rather than simple skill learning.
The materials should stimulate children’s projects. Activities that are intrinsically motivated and self-directed enable the best learning. Projects allow all levels of readiness to become involved. And, when varying levels play alongside each other, scaffolding and shared learning takes place.
Effective teachers pay attention to children’s play and their interests. They are skilled at seeing situations from a child’s point of view. Then, they enhance math vocabulary and ideas with their questions:
“What would happen if you—?”
“What if you tried it this way?”
These teachers are also tuned into whether or not the children’s math thinking is developing or if it has reached a standstill. For example, two children may be trying to decide whose block structure is the biggest, but are stalled because one is tall and one is wide. A couple questions or suggestions at this point can move learning along.
It is important to remember that young children don’t see problems and solutions like adults. They still need tangible objects to enhance understanding and often their path to a solution seems convoluted.
For example, a child sees five blocks and then they are covered. The teacher shows him two more and asks,” How many are there now?” Chances are, he will answer, “Two,” unless he can also see the other five at the same time. A teacher’s understanding of such cognitive “quirks” is vitally important to the learning that will take place.
It is, then, the intuitive teacher, the intentionally prepared environment, and the children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn that makes early math something we just don’t want to miss.