Virginia Commonwealth University
September 26, 2011
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Cathy Cook, M.Ed., VDOE T/TAC at James Madison University

Exploring concepts in mathematics with a classroom of four year olds can be one of the most exciting experiences for a preschool teacher. Watching a child pour water into a container that fills to the brim and seeing the child’s face expressing both relief and satisfaction when it all “fits” is witnessing learning in action. When a child finds the answer to a question or discovers results from an experiment, the child’s success translates to personal and professional satisfaction for the teacher. We can take a deep breath and say, “He did it!” but we know it is not magic. Yes, preschool children naturally discover and learn from teachers and from each other with hands-on experiences but rarely does it happen coincidentally. Nobody can pull a rabbit from a hat unless someone puts the rabbit there in the first place.

Child playing with math manipulatives

Make math fun by using manipulatives and embedding meaningful math experiences throughout the day.

According to Jennifer Grisham-Brown, one of authors of Blended Practices for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings, universal strategies must be in place to implement a curriculum framework regardless of the subject. When Dr. Grisham-Brown presented at the Content Teaching Academy at JMU in June, 2010 she shared the following components for designing instruction.

As she noted, each of these components should be deliberately planned and intentionally provided in the preschool classroom. In preschool, math should not be taught with worksheets or in teacher-directed lessons during a specific period during the day. Teachers are often taken back when principals or directors ask, “When do you do math in this class?” The answer is teachers in preschool do math all day long… during transitions, center time, mealtime, outdoor time, etc. This requires embedding, planning, taking advantage of multiple opportunities, and setting the stage (the classroom environment) for a not-so-magic math show. Again, there is nothing that appears effortlessly or with the wave of a wand.

When we take a look at the “Learning PATHS and Teaching STRATEGIES in Early Mathematics” (2003), according to the position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and from National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the developmental process in children from three to six years varies considerably. Likewise, the recommended strategies for math instruction take variations into consideration. Regardless of each child’s developmental level, the key words are the same; show, encourage, involve, and invite the children to experience math on the continuum in an environment that is well equipped with materials. The authors of the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale write, “Math materials, unlike materials used for block play, art or housekeeping usually are not placed within a particular interest center. Instead, math materials appear in many interest centers throughout the room.” (Cryer, Harms & Riley, 2003,) When the materials are convenient and accessible and the teaching staff models measuring, grouping, counting and comparing in the context of play, then the result is intentional instruction that is developmentally appropriate.

As teachers and children engage in natural, comfortable conversation it is advantageous for teachers to use math vocabulary and show children what the words mean so that they can relate them to their experiences. They need to hear the words that connect math concepts to their world and it needs to be fun! Encouraging children, through active exchanges, to repeat “math language” in words or in demonstration them, reinforces and extends learning. Using the vocabulary from the math standards section of the Virginia Foundation Blocks for Early Learning (VDOE, 2007) in lesson plans and in notes to co-teachers is an effective way to ensure that children are exposed to math vocabulary. When we write the words, we are more likely to use them as we explain math concepts to children. For example, if we are talking about patterns, ask the children to say the word and then using manipulatives, show them how to make or recognize a pattern. Adding visuals to show what a word means is important in preschool and allowing time for children to demonstrate their understanding is key to accessing and planning for math instruction. Encouraging children to express themselves, mathematically, is beneficial and entertaining. We are regularly amazed in preschool when a four year old tells us how old he or she thinks we are.

We know that, according to the Teaching Pyramid model from The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), “good relationships are key to effective teaching and guidance in social, emotional and behavioral development.” (Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph, & Strain,2003) With this foundation in place to ensure that a good time will be had by all, preschool teachers can provide materials and plan to incorporate the standards for math instruction such as those provided in Virginia Foundation Blocks for Early Learning and not the Kindergarten Standards of Learning for Mathematics. Again, there are children who vary in their levels of skill and knowledge, especially in inclusive classrooms. Some children are not verbally identifying numbers while others are recognizing written numerals. Teachers in preschool are as capable of individualizing for children’s instruction as teachers in fourth grade. Understanding and accepting individuality is the first step to making a child feel good about learning in preschool. Preschool teachers have the perfect opportunity to encourage problem solving, which is especially important in math instruction. Problem solving skills are something that preschoolers can work on throughout the day. This challenge presents teachers with the opportunity to show a four year old how to respond like Tucker Turtle. When Tucker is faced with a problem that requires skill and patience to solve, he stops to breathe and then considers possible solutions. There is nothing magic there, except that in preschool a frown can be turned upside down, perhaps magically, when love and acceptance are at the heart of instruction.


Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2003). All about the ecers-r, New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). The Teaching Pyramid. Young Children, Module 4, Handout 4.7.

Grisham-Brown, J. (2010). Designing and implementing a curriculum framework for all children-part II [PowerPoint slides].
Virginia foundation blocks for early learning. (2007) Virginia Department of Education.



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