Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Writing recently in Education Week, Deborah Stipek, Alan Schoenfeld, and Deanna Gomby call for increased attention to building children’s math skills in early learning settings. Citing research that links early math skills with later academic progress – including math and reading skills in second and third grade – they call for developmentally appropriate instruction in mathematical concepts.

Stipek is a professor and former dean of Stanford University’s School of Education. Schoenfeld is a professor of education and mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. Gomby is vice president for education at the California-based Heising-Simons Foundation.

“We need pre-k standards that are aligned with the Common Core,” they write in “Math Matters, Even for Little Kids.” “Perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting past resistance to academically focused instruction in early childhood settings.”

In Massachusetts in December 2010, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved pre-k standards as part of broader frameworks in English language arts and mathematics that include the Common Core. “The [math] standards—which correspond with the learning activities in the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences (2003)—can be promoted through play and exploration activities, and embedded in almost all daily activities,” the math frameworks state. “They should not be limited to ‘math time.’ In this age group, foundations of mathematical understanding are formed out of children’s experiences with real objects and materials.”

In their Ed Week column, Stipek, Schoenfeld and Gomby urge early educators to fold mathematical instruction into the play-based, hands-on activities through which young children learn best.

“Meaningful math activities in the context of play can foster crucial aspects of children’s development. The goals in math instruction are to build on what young children know in ways that children enjoy. For example, playing mathematical or strategy games such as Chutes and Ladders or tic-tac-toe can build math and problem-solving skills while also developing social skills (e.g., turn taking and cooperation), early-language skills, and cognitive self-regulation. Developing a solution to sharing a plate of cookies both builds rudimentary division skills and helps promote social skills,” they write.

“The most commonly encountered activities in preschool are among the least effective for teaching children math. Learning to count by rote teaches children number words and their order, but it does not teach them number sense, any more than singing the letters L-M-N-O-P in the alphabet song teaches phonemic awareness….

“The goal of math instruction is to help children develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to solve mathematical problems. To achieve this goal, young children need problems to solve and latitude to construct their own strategies. Teaching math effectively requires a focus on children’s understanding of the core foundational concepts in mathematics.”