Math Play in an Early Childhood Classroom

Sharing this post written by Lori Davis, Head of School at The Tobin School in Natick


Math is learned through play. Toddlers stack colorful cups into a tower with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on top. Preschoolers play with patterns as they chant out right/left or high/low and experiment with pattern making in their speech and with clapping and stamping sounds. Progressing, students in Pre-Kindergarten drop plastic ‘falling stars’ on a large sheet of black paper, then count the number that lands on the paper and find that number hidden on the border. More sophisticated, in Junior Kindergarten, students work on hot cocoa marshmallow addition, creating art with paper mugs and glued-on marshmallows: if Sam has 3 and Lena has 2, how many do we have all together? Then, in Kindergarten, learning continues: it’s all about teen numbers and challenging each other in pairs by using plastic connecting cubes to make teen number combinations.

“Math coming into school is important because kids who do well in math early on tend to do very well in school”

– Greg Duncan, Professor of Education at University of California Irvine and Economist

Math Activities Grow as Students Grow

What do all these activities have in common? They show math in action in early childhood classrooms. For these young students, the best way to learn math is to play with math concepts throughout the day, counting, sorting, patterning, graphing and measuring EVERYTHING. This hands-on learning is also the joy of math in early childhood. We don’t need a designated math time to work on these concepts–skilled educators use all sorts of interactions to make comparisons, count and seriate items, find shapes in the environment, and measure with traditional tools (rulers, yardsticks, tape measures), as well as non-traditional items such as popsicle sticks, plastic bugs, and even their own feet and hands. Math lives inside, outside, in the transitions from one activity to another, and during snack and lunch. The role of a true early childhood educator is to make math come to life.

Building Math Confidence in Young Students

While many adults look at math classes in their past and shudder, or remember the terrible fear they had before a math exam, we want to prepare our students to think of the world as a math laboratory. The good news: this early exposure to math really works. A study by Greg Duncan, an economist and Professor of Education at University of California Irvine, is a national expert on the importance of strong early math skills. He believes, “Math coming into school is important because kids who do well in math early on tend to do very well in school. And math is important later on because kids who do well in math in high school end up doing well in the labor market.” Check out this interview with Duncan.

Understandably, parents with young children might not be thinking about their long-term career success just yet; however, it is the right time to build a solid foundation for your busy 3-year-old, so that they learn how math is incorporated into their daily lives in a fun, engaging way. Come visit one our many early childhood classrooms at Tobin to see how we make math a part of all we do!

Nurturing, Educating, and Empowering Children