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Fall 2009 Vol. 9 Number 2

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Adding Math to Preschool Learning


Math is often seen as a low priority in preschools, which typically devote their resources to language and reading skills and social development. But a new report from the National Research Council says that it’s time for early childhood educators to stop giving math short shrift.

Studies show that children start absorbing mathematical concepts far earlier than commonly recognized. Even as young as 10 months, babies can distinguish between a set of two items and a set of three. They expand on this awareness as they get older — for example, by noticing when another child has more or fewer toys than they do.

Adult support is crucial in helping young children see the mathematical aspects of everyday situations, the report says. It recommends that all public and private preschools increase the amount of time devoted to mathematics, and include lessons that have math education as their primary purpose. Currently, if preschools teach math at all, it’s generally folded in as a secondary goal of other activities — a less-effective teaching strategy.

Mathematics teaching in early childhood education settings should concentrate on two major content areas, said the committee that wrote the report. The first is “number,” the umbrella concept educators use to describe counting, determining less and more, and basic operations such as adding and subtracting. The second area is geometry, spatial thinking, and measurement.

Helping children reason about things mathematically is an important part of instruction, the report says. For example, children might practice measuring various objects using a wooden block and then discuss why it’s important to use a standard unit of measure in determining whether one object is longer or taller than another. Or a teacher might ask a child to count a set of toys from left to right and then from right to left, to help him or her understand that the order in which items are counted doesn’t change the number.

For each content area, the report describes “teaching-learning paths” — sequences of learning experiences in which each new step builds on earlier steps. Research has shown these pathways to be an effective way to help children’s learning in mathematics, the committee said. For example, a child might be shown many examples of shapes to learn what aspects are mathematically relevant to determining shape — such as how many sides each one has — and what factors are not, such as size or orientation. After a child learns basic shapes, he or she can learn to combine them to create new shapes.

These teaching-learning paths should help shape the early childhood education system from the ground up, the report says. Teachers should use them in their classrooms, curriculum developers should base their materials on them, and states should develop or revise their early childhood learning standards to reflect these paths. And professional development opportunities are needed to instruct preschool educators on the teaching-learning paths and how to implement a mathematics curriculum effectively. The education and training given to preschool teachers has historically focused more heavily on emotional and social development, an emphasis that may leave many ill-equipped to teach math effectively.

Opportunities to receive strong math instruction are especially important for children from low income groups, the report notes. On average these children demonstrate lower levels of competence in math prior to entering school, and these gaps persist or widen as schooling continues. Providing these kids with high-quality mathematics instruction early on can provide a foundation for future learning and help address long-term inequities in educational outcomes, the report says, urging Head Start and other publicly funded programs to implement the report’s recommendations.
Sara Frueh

 Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2009, 398 pp.; ISBN 0-309-12806-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $54.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Christopher T. Cross, Cross & Joftus LLC, Danville, Calif. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the President’s Fund of the National Research Council.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences