Wired for Math: Are Preschoolers Ready to Play the Numbers?

preschoolmathMany moons ago the average preschool curriculum was heavy on Crayolas, Play-doh, and creative play and pretty light on organized instruction.  The idea was to introduce kids to the concepts of cooperation and sharing and get them ready for kindergarten, where the real learning would begin.

Then came the age of Sesame Street, when educators discovered the importance of teaching early language skills to encourage reading fluency and school success.  Those ground-breaking furry Muppets had the tiniest kidlets running around singing ‘C is for Cookie …’

Now there’s new research pointing to the undiscovered math abilities of children as young as 18 months, and innovative preschool programs are being designed to develop them.  Julie Sarama, a researcher at the University of Buffalo, along with her husband, Doug Clements, has developed a program called Building Blocks to enrich math education at the preschool level.

Until recently, educators and many scientists believed that children could not learn math at all before the age of five because their brains simply were not ready. “Not true”, say experts working in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  Recent research shows that a crude “number instinct” is hard-wired into the anatomy of the brain.  New early education approaches are gaining ground, and if this trend catches on it may transform our assumptions about teaching math concepts.

Today’s typical preschool class may include some lessons in counting and familiarity with numbers, but that’s about it.  Most do not focus on math-related games or activities.  On the contrary, instructional time is largely spent on language skills.  These experts would argue that we need to reconsider this approach, particularly here in the U.S. where our students leave secondary school way behind their international peers in math and science.

In a Building Blocks classroom, numbers are in artwork, on computer games and in lessons, sharing equal time with letters.  Children play creative counting games and practice other number skills, including cardinality (how many objects are in a set) and one-to-one correspondence (matching groups of objects, like cups and saucers). Numbers are linked to familiar objects in the physical world, and  teachers can tailor the Building Block lesson to a student’s individual ability.

This is interesting stuff, and it has huge implications for how we teach our kids, and when.  But it raises another set of questions that are just as important.

Is this another step along the path of less play, more work for our youngest kiddos? Will we sacrifice the dress-up corner and finger paints in the interest of boosting those far-off SAT scores of the future?  Child development gurus have long believed that the work of young children is imaginative play.  Does this new research put a big fat question mark at the end of that sentence?

Or, can we — should we — join the competitive global 21st century and attempt to blend the two?  Will the new corner at preschool be a colorful number pit?  What do YOU think?

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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