"Math Talk" With Young Children

Learning Math Through Play.

Prof. Sudha Swaminathan and Prof. Jeffrey Traywick-Smith, Eastern Connecticut State University.
Photo:Sujata Srinivasan
"Math Talk" With Young Children
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"Math Talk" With Young Children

A new study finds that the way teachers interact with young children while they play, can have a powerful impact on toddlers’ mathematical abilities. WNPR visits a pre-school on the campus of Eastern Connecticut State University.

This toddler is rolling a dice on a board game, trying to figure out how many spaces to get to a pig. Along the way, his teacher is constantly engaging him in “math talk.” The child was one of about 65 four and five-year-olds in a study on the importance of math education during play.

Professor Sudha Swaminathan.

“Early mathematical thinking sets the foundation for a lot of different things – problem-solving, reasoning, critical thinking.”

Children in poverty tested lower on the assessment scale. But by the end of the study period, something extraordinary happened, says professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith.

“They showed some of the greatest gains over the course of a year if teachers would use a lot of math talk and interact with them.”

Number-oriented play helps children with basic counting and understanding quantity and volume. Also important, talking about how a child reached a conclusion, whether right or wrong. These kinds of interactions help reduce math phobia as kids grow older.

“When children see that mathematics could be interesting and fun, they’re more motivated to learn math and they may not enter school with this kind of view that this is tedious or too challenging.”

Findings show kids have fun learning when teachers don’t interrupt play but engage in “math talk” during play. This can help to narrow the achievement gap, and may lead to students being drawn to science and engineering later on, says Swaminathan.

“Research has shown that if the achievement gap is not narrowed at pre-school, it does get wider and wider. You’ve got to close the gap at the early stages.”

For WNPR, I’m Sujata Srinivasan.