Helping Early Childhood Teachers Support Young Children's Math Learning

Kristen Reed conducts research that advances the field’s knowledge of policies, programs, and professional development that support excellent and equitable preK–5 mathematics teaching and learning. With Jessica Young, Kristen is the co-PI of a National Science Foundation-funded study, Games for Young Mathematicians, that examines the relation of a teacher professional development program to low-income preschool children’s school readiness skills and mathematics learning. On April 18 (9:45–11:00 a.m.), Kristen and Jessica shared this work in a session, “Preschool Mathematical Practices: Learning to Make Sense and Persevere,” at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting in Boston, Mass. In this post, Kristen describes their study.

Even before children are able to count or have the language to compare quantities, they notice which pile of cookies has more and which has less. They are aware of the phenomena of “more or less,” they are interested in it, and they are ready to dive into the language and early math experiences that foster their later school success. Their families and teachers need to be ready, too.

Although young children have the capacity and interest to learn meaningful mathematics, they need adult support. Their early mathematics explorations—in activities at home with their families and in interactions with caregivers at preschool—can build a strong foundation for their later mathematics understanding. Yet too often in preschool classrooms, goals for children in mathematics are set too low compared to what children can learn and should learn to be ready for kindergarten.  

The Games for Young Mathematicians (YM) study addresses the need for preschool teachers to integrate more mathematics into their classrooms in a fun way while building children’s persistence with challenging activities. The YM project shows preschool teachers how to use a set of carefully designed, developmentally appropriate, and mathematically challenging games to support young children’s early mathematics learning. The games are both simple to use and very engaging. Some are quick and use everyday materials; others use a game board and require more extended play. All of the games share the following characteristics:

  • They can be repeated many times, and their difficulty can be decreased or increased to sustain challenge as children gain proficiency.
  • They engage children in problem solving, puzzling, and discussing strategies as they play.
  • They collectively focus on counting, operations, algebraic thinking, and geometry.
  • They promote children’s persistence.

In one of the games, Hopping on the Lily Pads, children learn to identify numerals, practice counting sequences forwards and backwards, hop space-by-space on a game board, and “count on.” Researchers (Laski & Siegler 2014; Ramani & Siegler, 2008; Siegler & Ramani, 2008; Siegler & Ramani, 2009; Whyte & Bull, 2008) have found that prompting students to count on from a given number rather than to just count-from-1 assists with learning the names of the numbers and in understanding their magnitude.