Watch young children at play, and you’ll often see basic mathematical concepts in action. Whether it’s lining up and counting favorite objects or creating visual patterns with blocks, children are intuitive with math. But mention formal math instruction for preschoolers and some may raise an eyebrow. “People think that means little kids sitting at desks doing worksheets,” say EDC researcher Ashley Lewis.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Lewis and colleagues at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology recently completed a two-year study of a mathematics curriculum developed for pre-K and kindergarten children. Developed by educators at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Boston University, and Johns Hopkins, Big Math for Little Kids (BMLK) introduces basic math concepts through games and play. The researchers learned that math instruction for preschoolers can be hands-on, effective, and a lot of fun.
EDC’s research team worked in 16 child care-centers that are supported by the New York City Administration for Child Services (ACS), and which provide subsidized child-care services for low-income families. The researchers followed 762 children over two years as they went from pre-K to kindergarten classrooms.
The study determined that children in the classrooms using BMLK learned more math and had higher achievement scores than those in the control classrooms. They saw the greatest learning gains in the second year of the program. “The program pulled children from scoring just below the national average on the government’s measure to just above it,” says EDC’s Peggy Clements.
The study assessed children’s mathematics abilities using a standardized mathematics assessment developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S Department of Education’s (DOE) Institute of Education Sciences, which funded the work. This approach differs from that of most other preschool mathematics studies, which use mathematics assessments that are designed to be aligned with the curriculum being studied. “This is a tougher standard to meet,” explains Clements. “Not only did the children learn what they were taught, they learned the concepts that are generally endorsed by the DOE.”
Researchers note that the program is designed especially for preschoolers and isn’t merely a simplified version of a curriculum for older students. “This program supports the kind of learning that is happening spontaneously for preschoolers. It provides opportunities or structures to learn the concepts more quickly and in greater depth,” says Lewis. “The curriculum is games-based and fun, and it covers real math concepts.”
For instance, children this age love repetition, so many activities involve pattern making, such as creating patterned necklaces with colored pasta or repeating sounds in patterns. Patterns support logical thinking and underlie more advanced mathematics, including geometry. In addition, the program contains a literacy component to help children develop a mathematical vocabulary. Along with learning new words for each unit, children receive storybooks that deal with numbers.
Children can bring the books home to read with their parents. Written in English and Spanish, the books are “fun stories that reinforce math concepts,” explains Lewis. “Parents loved them. They could see their kids enjoying math, for example, counting things in the grocery store or identifying shapes at home.”
“Across the country, there are millions of children who start school at a distinct disadvantage. Programs like these promote school readiness among kids who need it most,” says Clements. “What the study really shows us is that all kids are capable of learning mathematical concepts at a young age.”
Originally published on January 21, 2009