By: Kyle Snow, Ph.D.
While early educators continue to be concerned about threats to play in early childhood, (see Crisis in the Kindergarten, for example) there is growing evidence that play is not a distraction from children’s learning, and may actually be a catalyst for it. This argument is not new – it was made in the book A Mandate for Playful Learning, among others. A recent piece in the Atlantic, “5-year-olds Can Learn Calculus", sounds like a further push-down of academics into early childhood. But it is less about increased academic pressure in early childhood and more a summary of the ways play supports children’s learning of mathematics. The article considers how play can be used to support children’s understanding of patterns and geometry – areas of mathematics that may sound intimidating, but are engaging for young children.
The relationship between play and mathematics development was also the theme of a recent blog by Doug Clements and Julie Sarama, “Play, Mathematics, and False Dichotomies,” posted as part of a National Institute for Early Education Research forum “Reflections on Play.” Drs. Clements and Sarama argue that academic learning and play are not incompatible – that it is not an either/or choice for teachers of young children – but are mutually reinforcing. While the argument that play and learning is a false dichotomy has been made before (including this blog post by NAEYC), Clements and Sarama underscore the need to move past the “pernicious false dichotomy that harms the children.” They argue that “Combining free play with intentional teaching, and promoting play with mathematical objects and mathematical ideas is pedagogically powerful.”
This approach to integrating play and mathematics is not new – it is incorporated into the NAEYC position statement on early childhood mathematics, and part of holistic views of early childhood mathematics education (The brief Mathematics Education for Young Children:What It is and How to Promote It and National Academies book Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood provide good overviews of the holistic approach to early mathematics). Still, research, like the study by Lee and Ginsburg, Early Childhood Teachers' Misconceptions About Mathematics Education for Young Children in the United States shows that teachers of young children may struggle with how to effectively teach mathematics. Clements and Sarama give several examples of how teachers can use young children’s play with math in this post, as well as a blog specifically for teachers. More ideas for supporting young children in developing math skills can be found in The Young Child and Mathematics and Supporting Early Math Learning for Infants and Toddlers.
NAEYC Math Resources: