Preschool Math Grows Up: Tips for Teachers

By Kristin Stanberry

As a preschool educator, you surely delight in your young students’ zest for learning. From the outside, it might seem like your job is all about fun and games, but parents of young children know (and appreciate) how you influence and model positive behaviors, shape instruction, cultivate optimism and positive attitudes about school and learning, boost self-esteem, and provide the foundation for their future in school and in the community.

In addition to teaching preschoolers to follow rules, share toys, and cooperate with others, you’re also teaching them the basics of reading, writing, and math. Early reading has been a major focus of education research and instruction for many years; and thankfully, the spotlight has now expanded to include math. At the same time, the No Child Left Behind Act has led to more rigorous reading and math programs in early elementary school. Consequently, many preschools are now revising their math programs to prepare students for the increasing demands of early elementary school math. Chances are you’re experiencing this effort to “ramp up” at the preschool where you teach.

What do you need to know and do to help preschoolers learn about math? We’ll lay out the essential elements that comprise an effective preschool math program. You’ll find tips to help you establish Glossary Link baseline skills and measure improvement for individual students. And, you can learn about new research findings that will enhance your knowledge about teaching preschool math.

Building an effective preschool math program

As your school reviews and retools its math program to meet current requirements, you and your director may want to ensure your program is aligned with current best practices. These include:

  • Making math real by teaching it in the context of preschoolers' everyday lives--at school, at home, and in the community. Math doesn't exist only on paper, a chalkboard, or a whiteboard; preschoolers learn math best by doing hands-on projects and activities and being reminded how the math they're learning "doing" is part of their everyday lives.
  • Teaching the many aspects of math: "number sense," geometry (patterns and shapes), measurement, the language of math, and spatial relations.
  • Teaching math across the curriculum rather than as an isolated subject. Blend math concepts into language arts, music, art, and science projects.
  • Observing, documenting and sharing progress about individual students’ math competency and challenges with their parents.
  • Individualizing math instruction to students’ needs, building on what they already know.
  • Find out if the math program and materials you use are based on peer-reviewed research that has proven to be effective.

Staying on top of best practices in math instruction

Keeping up with best practices in preschool math requirements can be a challenge for preschool teachers. If you feel overwhelmed and need more support, don’t hesitate to ask your director for in-service training, professional development, additional resources, and mentoring. The right support can improve your comfort level, confidence – and the quality of your teaching. You can also keep up with best practices by:

  • Talking to other teachers and finding out what works for them; swapping ideas and lesson plans with each other;
  • Reviewing the curriculum, then creating and expanding activities to teach and practice key concepts and skills;
  • Checking with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for advice on about effective preschool math materials and teaching methods.

Do you lack confidence in your own math ability? Do you dislike the subject or suffer from “math anxiety”? If this sounds like you, take heart: The new approaches to preschool math, supported by recent research, are exciting because they give educators techniques for teaching math in a way that’s both effective and enjoyable.

Screening for math awareness and skills in early learners

It’s a good idea to determine each student’s math literacy level at the beginning of each term (to establish a benchmark) and to measure the child’s progress with subsequent screenings. According to Children’s Progress, Inc. preschool teachers should assess students’ progress in math in several key areas. For example, can the child:

  • Complete a geometric pattern or math pattern?
  •  Identify colors and shapes, numbers, and quantity?
  •  Place numbers in the correct order, such as smallest to largest?
  •  Compare different quantities?
  •  Compare objects based on size, shape, length, etc.?

Because math is a multi-faceted subject, a child may be strong in some areas but have difficulty with others. In that respect, learning math is much like learning to read. Once you know where a child stands, play to his or her strengths while addressing the areas in which he or she struggles.

At this time, researchers haven’t been able to clearly identify the core deficits that indicate math disabilities in preschool students. While this can make screening for math disabilities and delays tricky, you may want to seek help and support if a child:

  • Has difficulty with simple counting.
  • Doesn’t understand the one-to-one correspondence between number symbols and items/objects.
  • Doesn’t seem to understand or notice variations in size, patterns, or shapes.
  • Doesn’t see how math concepts exist in everyday life, even when examples are pointed out to him or her.
  • Dislikes and avoids activities and games that involve numbers and counting.

If you’re concerned that a child may have a learning disability or delay, you might suggest that his or her parents contact the public school system’s director of Special Education for a  diagnostic screening at no cost (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

The influence of culture, community, and socio-economic status

Just as a child’s family and neighborhood may influence the development of reading awareness and skills, these same factors may affect progress in learning math. Research has revealed cultural differences in when — and how — children are exposed to early math concepts at home.

Children who live in poverty are often at risk for poor math achievement (and for low academic achievement in general). These children may enter preschool suffering from an absence of intellectual stimulation at home, especially if their parents didn’t receive the benefit of a full education. Look for ways to provide rich math experiences for children and to engage their parents as partners by sharing with them the math concepts your child is learning at school and encouraging them to reinforce that learning at home.

Activities to help preschoolers gain math literacy

What do we know about preschool students and math? Recent research tells us they’re naturally curious about math in the world around them. You already know that preschoolers love to learn by doing — engaging their minds, connecting with their senses, and tapping into their enthusiasm. Research reinforces the value of letting them learn about math through hands-on games and activities they enjoy. One surprising research finding is that, while young children appear to learn to read best by mastering skills in an orderly, linear fashion (e.g., print awareness first, then phonics, etc.), the “normal” learning curve in math can vary from one child to the next. In fact, some children seem to be able to understand and engage in certain math activities without first having mastered other, simpler counting and math-related tasks. Learn more about these research discoveries and insights.

Below are some suggested activities to help young children learn and practice each of the core aspects of early math.

Skill Area  Suggested Activities
Number sense
  • Count food items at snack time (e.g., 5 crackers, 20 raisins, 10 baby carrots).
  • Use a calendar to count down the days to a special holiday.
  • Practice simple addition and subtraction using small toys and blocks.
  • Create and use a number line.
  • Play memory games by having students look at a row of 3 numerals then have them close their eyes and repeat the numbers they saw, in the correct order.
  • Ask students to name the shapes of blocks and other familiar objects.
  • Let students arrange colored blocks and manipulatives into different patterns and shapes. Have them name the resulting shapes.
  • During "arts and crafts" time have students create objects (e.g., shapes cut out of paper) to use later in math activities and lessons.
  • Weigh and measure various objects on a "science table."
  • Using some of their favorite manipulatives (such as plastic farm animals or toy cars) ask them "Are there more blue cars and fewer red cars?" or "What are there more of, cows or sheep?"
  • Play "guessing" games such as "I'm thinking of a number that greater than 2 but less than 5."
Math language
  • Talk students through games and activities involving math.
  • Ask questions and encourage them to learn to use terms like: more than/fewer, bigger/smaller, etc.
Spatial relation
  • Play games where children are asked to jump forward and back, or point to things that are far or nearby.
  • Use songs with matching movements to reinforce concepts like in and out, up and down, and before and after.

For additional ideas on exposing students to these five core areas of early math, check out the following additional resources:

Partnering with parents

Get to know your students’ parents early in the school year. As you discuss and plan for a child’s early school career, make sure that math is included right along with reading and other areas of growth and development. And, keep the communication flowing throughout the year, at parent-teacher conferences and through informal conversations.

You can “borrow a page” from lessons learned in early reading instruction by encouraging parents to practice math at home with their children. When children understand how math comes into play at school, at home, and in the world around them, meaningful learning can occur. Support this “bridge” between classroom and learning at home by creating a lending library of math games and activities that children can take home to enjoy with their friends, siblings, and parents.  And, share this article with parents: Early Math Matters: A guide for parents of preschoolers to help make sure you both have a similar understanding about early math.

A chance for positive change

As your approach to math instruction evolves and expands, you’ll discover more opportunities to prepare your young students to succeed in math – and to learn to appreciate and enjoy it as well.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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