Making the Most of Mathematical Play

If you have been following our early math team’s work with three- and four-year-olds, you’ll know that we’re exploring the ways children develop knowledge and understanding in the context of mathematical play. We’re not interested in “social knowledge”, or the kind of knowledge that requires transmission from one person to another. Rather, we’re engaged in exploring the knowledge that is constructed as we learn to think and interact with others. For young children, this knowledge is often best developed in natural settings where children are encouraged to play, follow their interests, interact with others, and build on their existing knowledge.

Preschool classrooms are well-suited to this kind of mathematical play. Imagine for a moment that you’re visiting a preschool classroom and notice a small group of children building towers with blocks. The children are using blocks of various colors from a large bin, connecting them to form towers, and comparing each other’s towers. What mathematical thinking might you observe from the children? What kinds of comments might the children be making? How might you interact with these children?

As an adult, the ways in which you interpret children’s activity and choose to interact with them have the potential to increase the benefits of their play. You may or may not have felt confident in your responses to the questions in the previous scenario! Perhaps you were unsure of how to interact with the children, or maybe you felt confident about what you might say or do. Either way, you probably drew on your knowledge of children’s thinking. As we explore these scenarios with actual children in preschool classrooms and prepare to work with teachers, we’re beginning to ask some questions of our own:

  • What teacher knowledge is needed in order to enhance these adult-child interactions and help children learn the most in play contexts?
  • What experiences can support preschool teachers in deepening their knowledge of children’s mathematical thinking and the ways they can support children in play contexts?

Research in early childhood education has suggested that there is a specific body of mathematical content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge needed to determine when and how to interact with children. Of additional importance is a general understanding of what is and is not developmentally appropriate for children. For example, teachers might use specific language, direct student attention, or wonder along with children in order to take advantage of opportunities for mathematics learning in play settings. Our work in early childhood mathematics education is all about children…but it’s all about teachers, too!

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