Why teach math to 3-year-old children?

“Early math is surprisingly important,” Doug Clements, an early learning expert at the University of Denver, explains in a PBS NewsHour report.

“What kids know in their preschool or entering kindergarten year about mathematics predicts their later school success. In mathematics, sure, that makes sense, but it even predicts later reading success, as well as early literacy skills do.”

In essence, why wouldn’t you teach math to 3-year-olds given how high the payoff is.

Clements is one of the creators of Building Blocks, a project — funded by the National Science Foundation — that designs math curricula for young children.

“Our basic approach is finding the mathematics in, and developing mathematics from, children’s activity,” the Building Blocks website explains. “We wish to help children extend and mathematize their everyday activities, from building blocks to art to songs to puzzles…”

Boston uses the Building Blocks curriculum in its public schools because, “Getting young children involved in mathematics at an early age helps foster their curiosity about mathematics, particularly mathematics in their environment,” as Linda Ruiz Davenport, the Boston Public Schools’ mathematics director, explains to PBS NewsHour.

Boston explains Building Blocks to families in its “Counting Down to Kindergarten Handbook.” And the city refers parents who want to know more to this web page.

For Sara Gardner, a pre-K teacher at Boston’s Edward Everett School, the Building Blocks approach is appealing because “as a teacher, you really get to dig deeply into the development of math and math ideas in young kids.”

But as with all early education programs, quality and strong teaching matter.

Susan Neuman, a professor of early literacy at New York University, told PBS NewsHour about a teacher who didn’t have key math skills:

“The teacher actually said to the children, a triangle has three sizes, rather than three sides. And then the coach actually had to go to the blackboard and draw it, and show that it had three sides, rather than three sizes. Yet the teacher then repeated, it has three sizes.”

That’s one reason Neuman recommends having “teams of early education teacher-coaches.”

Teachers, Neuman says, have to feel comfortable with math, and like it. “They have to understand things from an understanding of not only the topic itself, such as math, but how children learn about that topic.”

For some teachers, though, loving math is tough.

“Honestly, I hate math. My instructors would say, Stephanie, don’t say that,” says Boston Public School teacher Stephanie Kudriashova. “I have been working really hard not to be math-phobic, and coming to workshops like Building Blocks has helped me as an adult.”

Does Kudriashova think back on her own childhood and wish she had learned math better, the PBS NewsHour reporter asked.

“I wish all the time. And, today, you know, I actually at one point started getting nervous, and sweating, because they gave us something to do, and I was like, oh, no.”

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Kudriashova to become a math-loving teacher.

And it’s definitely not too early for 3-year-olds to start learning math from well-trained teachers who can make math a fun, engaging part of children’s daily lives.

Connie Henry, Boston Public Schools’ assistant director of mathematics, “Early math is wondering about the mathematics in the world around us, noticing the relationships between quantities and number, discovering patterns, talking about shapes. Given that a child’s understanding of early math is so predictive of later success, providing positive and robust learning opportunities in math can help close the early achievement gap.

“As a teacher facilitates children’s learning through questions, games, and encouraging discovery, the enthusiasm about math becomes contagious. Even if teachers did not enjoy their own school experience in math, they can shift towards seeing math as more positive and playful, less about rules and more about inquiry and sharing.”