I have just concluded my second year at the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education in which our Center’s main focus is to learn how young children come to know math. Through our partnership with two Head Start early learning programs, the four AIMS early math research associates observed two sites that housed 10 programs. Each site was visited 19 times this year to work with over 60 children ages 3-5 years-old. At our year-end meeting with the Head Start staff, we shared our “aha” moments through videotapes of children that we worked with this year. The videos captured the opportunities and the complexities of children’s learning. This is what I have learned in the past two years:
What Can Be Noticed About Children’s Mathematical Thinking?
A young child’s world is full of opportunities to explore math and a child has a natural curiosity to ask how many, how large, how long, how small, to compare and contrast, and to sequence events. The child needs to explore new manipulatives and materials; teachers can follow the lead of the child to scaffold new knowledge.
We had a three-year-old girl who loved her baby doll and was easily distracted so we had her count the fingers and toes on her doll which she joyfully did. During one of our games we developed for acquiring the number word sequence, the same girl was engaged with counting items for over 30 minutes. Learning occurs when the child is engaged in high interest activities.
How the Context of Play can Enhance Mathematical Opportunities
Cooperative problem solving with peers plays a central role in promoting children’s cognitive and social development. Children are excited to learn in a natural play environment within a small group. Peer support and conversations occur that enrich the child’s opportunities to learn. In addition, participating in a math game allows teachers and children to approach learning together.
One student who was reticent during the initial interview stated that he did not want to leave our math group as he spent more than 20 minutes estimating the number of Legos to build items. He demonstrated to others how to systematically count a collection, monitor his counting, and model 1:1 correspondence.
How the Context of Play can Alleviate Math Anxiety
Some children, as young as three-years-old, are anxious to try new things for fear of being wrong. They would rather be a spectator than a participant and quietly say, “I don’t want to do it,” “I don’t know how to do it,” or they just look down.
Quite the contrary occurs when children are in a natural learning environment that incorporates play. The children are excited, they encourage, and teach each other. We saw children model how to count the pips on the dice, make finger patterns, and count linear items. There is more joy, laughter, and learning through intentional learning in play.
Recognize the Potential of Young Children
Our video observations indicate that learning can be enhanced when children are provided with the opportunities to explore mathematical concepts. We observed one student recognize the numerals on the carpet, another student adding three dice together, stating, “Three plus two is five, plus three is eight.” The same child stated, “4 take away 1 is three.” We showed a few students two sets and covered up one set. The students were able to recall how many were covered and count the total.
I have read many research studies about how children come to know math; however, there is no substitute for providing early math opportunities to children, to see them in their Zone of Potential Construction, then to see them light up with joy as learning occurs. Take the time to know what the child can do and you will be amazed. Simply, remember to do the math.