Panel Paper: Math in Preschool: A Review of the Mathematics Activities in the Most Widely Used Preschool Curricula

Friday, November 4, 2016 : 2:10 PM
Columbia 2 (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Amy Claessens1, Dale C. Farran2, Sarah Eason1, Sascha Mowrey2, Luke Rainey2 and Sarah Leonard1, (1)University of Chicago, (2)Vanderbilt University

Investments in early childhood education have grown rapidly alongside a large literature suggesting that early childhood education confers benefits on young children in terms of academic school readiness, particularly for children from low-income families (Farran & Lipsey, in press). Evidence also points to the importance of young children’s mathematical skills for short- and long-run school success (Claessens et al. 2009; Duncan et al., 2007). Further, both researchers and advocacy groups have called for an increased emphasis on early childhood mathematics, highlighting that young children are capable of learning complex and advanced mathematics (Clements & Sarama, 2011). Despite the investments in early childhood education and the push for more mathematics emphasis, little is known about what mathematics is taught in most preschool classrooms. We know little about what the existing curricula materials suggest that teachers should emphasize or how the suggested activities align with what young children are capable of doing.

In this paper, we aim to address this gap in the existing literature.  We examine 16 early childhood curricula drawn from a list of curricula recommended by Head Start, focusing on the mathematics activities in each curricula.  First, we excluded four curricula that had no mathematics activities to code; this resulted in twelve curricula to analyze. Of these twelve, we coded each activity first for whether or not it met each of the following criteria: 1) presence of an explicit, math-related objective; 2) extended activity including at least three distinct steps; and 3) presence of explicit instruction intended to draw students’ attention to the math concepts. In addition to these codes, we also identified the primary content of each activity as Basic Number Knowledge, Advanced Number Knowledge, Geometry, Operations and Algebra, Measurement and Data, or Other. This first set of coding allows us to describe generally the content and types of the mathematics activities. However, given that we know very little about the mathematics in early childhood classrooms, we then delve deeper into examining the organization of the activity (e.g., whole class vs. small group), inclusion of open-ended questions directed to students, and clarity of math content.

Results from this comprehensive analysis of the mathematics activities in early childhood curricula have important implications for both policy and practice. Given the importance of early childhood mathematics skills for later school success, understanding what the existing curricula are suggesting teachers teach is important for improving young children’s mathematics skills.  Further, as preschool and early childhood programs expand, they will adopt different curricula.  Our study will offer some guidance as to which curricula seem best suited for promoting young children’s mathematics skills and knowledge.  While we acknowledge that curricula alone do not promote student learning and that how teachers operationalize the curricula matters, our study will be one of the first to describe the mathematics activities widely used in preschool and early childhood settings.