Can little children really learn mathematics? Reporting from Teachers College, Columbia University, developmental psychologist Herbert Ginsburg says the overwhelming body of research conducted over the past 25 years reveals that – contrary to popular opinion – young children can learn both concrete and abstract mathematics. And what’s more, they often enjoy it.
The research-based expectation is that early math education should involve topics more challenging than those usually taught. The leading professional organizations in the field recommend that early mathematics instruction cover the “big ideas” of mathematics in such areas as number and operations, geometry (shape and space), measurement, and algebraic thinking (patterns). “This is not the kind of mathematics early childhood teachers usually teach,” says Ginsburg. “Nor is it the trivial mathematics of the drill sheets. It is a more genuine mathematics than either of these, and children can benefit greatly from learning about it under teachers’ guidance.”
Ginsberg recommends three components. First, visual objects such as blocks and puzzles – in the classroom physically and depicted virtually with modern technology – set the stage for mathematics learning. The second component, importantly, is play. “Children have a good time when they play and it stimulates cognitive development,” Ginsburg points out. The ideal would be to combine play with activities that “capitalize on children’s natural curiosity and can help them learn that making sense of real-life problems can be stimulating and enjoyable.”
“These three components are most effective if they are part of a well-planned curriculum that covers big concepts – like numbers, shapes and patterns – in the context of specific and exciting activities,” Ginsburg continues. “To succeed, a curriculum needs to be of high quality and needs to be implemented well. The early childhood educator needs to teach the material in an intentional, organized manner, while at the same time being sensitive to individual children’s interests.”