Is Early Mathematics Too Academic For Young Children?

Math for young children is much more than saying the number words by rote or memorizing the math facts. I just finished reading an article titled, “Learning Mathematics Through Play” by Anita A. Wager and Amy Noelle Parks. The early learning community has often said that children learn through play and there is research dated as far back as 1934 to support that statement. Block play supports geometry and visual reasoning as demonstrated by the increasingly sophisticated logico-mathematical knowledge and spatial relationships (Kamii, Miyakawa, and Kato, 2005). “Puzzle play predicts later achievement on tests of spatial ability” (Levine, Ratliff, Huttenlocher, and Cannon, 2012). When it comes to number and counting, playing board games for as little as four 15-minute sessions improves children’s abilities to complete number line estimation tasks, count, and make comparisons (Siegler and Ramani, 2008 & 2009). Play also involves patterns and shapes; in fact, 21% of observed play involved pattern and shapes (Seo-Ginsburg, 2004). In addition, patterns are found in chants, songs, and rhythm games (Taylor-Cox, 2003).

I am perplexed by the recurring question, “Is early mathematics too academic for young children?”  The conversation usually goes as follows:    

Early Learning Staff (ELS): “My preschool children are not ready to learn math yet; maybe after Thanksgiving they will be ready.”

Me: “Are your children reading independently now?”

ELS: “Not yet, but we read to them, have a print rich environment, ask parents to read to     their child, and have early literacy activities five days a week to build vocabulary throughout the day.”

Me: “You are certainly laying the foundation for children to read by providing ample school readiness reading experiences, so why aren’t you doing the same thing for math school readiness?”

I can see the person experiencing an “aha” moment. I look forward to the time when this teacher will increase her intentional school math instruction for her young students.

How do we expose young children to early mathematics?  Young children may not be able to count to 20 yet, but adults could certainly model by saying the number word sequence and counting.  Teachers and care providers could provide stations that explore math concepts such as patterns, size, and subitizing. They could incorporate math vocabulary words like shapes.  It would be powerful for them to incorporate concepts that identify before and after in sequencing the day, larger, smaller, shorter, longer, more, less, … Parents can use number words while having a casual conversation in the car, grocery shopping, or on a walk.

A friend of mine reminded me that our thoughts create our own barriers. If a parent or teacher did not have a positive experience in math during their elementary, high school, or college years, it could carry over into their home or classroom by them not recognizing and addressing opportunities for providing intentional math opportunities. We have to make sure that our negative experiences do not get replicated with our students.

I am not a proponent of the “academization” of early childhood curriculum, however I do promote giving every child an opportunity to learn through play and to interact with adults and peers. So, bring out the card games, Chutes and Ladders, and Candyland board games and remember to “do the math”.

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6 Responses to Is Early Mathematics Too Academic For Young Children?

  1. Playing games are a fun and great way to teach academics to young children. It is a valuable opportunity and it is a great way to teach skills without the kids realizing that they are learning new concepts or skills. There are certainly ample chances every day to incorporate life skills for a stronger foundation in math and other areas of academics. It is not that crucial to have a young child verbally recite the numbers to 20. However, it is quite important that they can recognize the number of things without having to count them one by one. Many fun and challenging games can be played to lay a strong foundation for future concepts.

  2. I remember playing Candy Land as a child. Later my mom taught me to play Bridge and Cribbage. I never thought about the math aspects of these games! I also love Backgammon (sp)as an young adult. It’s interesting that I was a big fan of games involving math but never really interested in math. Maybe I was and just didn’t know it?!

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