The Importance of Preschool and Kindergarten Math Instruction

by Math Solutions Professional Learning Team, October 05th, 2017

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When one envisions the preschool or the kindergarten classroom, activities that spring to mind include learning to participate within a whole group; sharing, listening, and turn-taking; learning new stories, songs and rhymes; practicing motor skills; drawing and artwork; getting familiar with letters, shapes, colors, numbers, and counting; expanding vocabulary, language, and social skills; getting used to following instructions; and collaborating in a small-group. These are all critical skills that help young students prepare for future learning and growth in reading, writing, math, and science.

We haven’t traditionally thought of focused mathematics instruction as one of the major emphases of early childhood education, however, today’s researchers are recognizing that effective math instruction in these early years can be key to later success in developing number sense and subsequent achievement in math. That instruction, however, must be carefully and thoughtfully aligned with age-appropriate developmental milestones, and informed by teachers’ deep content knowledge and pedagogical proficiency. This is because delving into abstract concepts that young children are not developmentally ready to absorb can lead to confusion. Fortunately, most early childhood classroom instructors are already tuned in to the concrete, hands-on teaching methods that work best with this age group, and they can also benefit greatly from professional learning support and resources that target and refine their math instruction.


A recent Education Week article makes the case for professional learning access for preschool teachers in the area of mathematics:

A large body of research evidence suggests that strong math skills in young children are a powerful predictor of future academic success.

But early-childhood educators—the professionals who are expected to help impart those early-math skills—are often left out of the professional-development programs that are commonplace for their peers who teach elementary and later grades.

That’s slowly starting to change. School districts and early-childhood providers around the country, often with the support of researchers in early-math development, are making strides in reaching out to this traditionally neglected workforce.

PD for preschool teachers improves instruction and morale, Christina A. Samuels, April 25, 2017,,


Leaders in the field of K–8 education are seeing that early math instruction is, in fact, quite an important factor in later math achievement. A National Council of Teachers of Mathematics position paper states:

Young learners’ future understanding of mathematics requires an early foundation based on a high-quality, challenging, and accessible mathematics education. Young children in every setting should experience mathematics through effective, research-based curricula and teaching practices. Such practices in turn require that teachers have the support of policies, organizational structures, and resources that enable them to succeed in this challenging and important work.

Mathematics in Early Childhood Learning—NCTM position, October, 2013, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

The authors of Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math, (Math Solutions, 2012), Ann Carlyle and Brenda Mercado, state that “there are mathematical concepts that need to be developed at an early age.” What are some of these key concepts that younger students can and should grasp to ensure an adequate math foundation for the content areas of number and operations, geometry, algebraic reasoning, and measurement, and how can teachers access information on early learners’ math needs?

Carlyle and Mercado have found that activities designed around finding, sorting, and classifying common objects are highly useful, and can be instrumental in increasing young children’s abilities to group objects, recognize and create patterns, make and use generalizations, advance counting skills, and approach problems in multiple ways. These activities also naturally lend themselves to math talk and student collaboration.

The authors describe how, by helping young learners create classroom collections of meaningful, everyday objects, teachers can guide them in sorting and categorizing these items according to their common attributes, including color, size, and shape. This develops awareness of the many similarities and differences among objects, which is one way we learn about and make sense of the world around us. These classroom collections can consist of common household items such as buttons or utensils, natural items such as stones, shells and pine cones, or various types of small toys.

The progression of early math concepts is described in more detail in Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math. These educators have noted that as children develop the ability to recognize similarities and differences and use that ability to match and then sort and classify items according to their attributes, they are able to move on to seeing and creating patterns, which in turn allows them to begin laying the foundation for algebraic thinking.

To recap just a few elements of effective early math instruction:

Teacher content knowledge

Teachers need and deserve to feel confident in their own math content knowledge and understanding of early developmental milestones.

A stimulating learning environment that encourages math talk and problem solving

We all solve problems differently and have preferred learning styles. A multi-modality approach will offer many opportunities for children to explore and express math ideas in a wide variety of ways, by verbally describing their reasoning, by representing ideas and solutions through drawing, or by using manipulatives and three-dimensional construction, just to name a few.

A non-threatening atmosphere that allows children to take chances

It is wise to keep in mind that an apparent misconception might not necessarily indicate confused thinking, but may instead reflect a moment along an individual child’s timeline of building on a concept in a way that shows progress developmentally. An example from the area of language development is that as a child is learning to incorporate a linguistic rule, such as how to conjugate a verb in the past tense, she may temporarily use a word or phrase, due to generalization of that rule, such as “I eated” instead of “I ate”, demonstrating that she has learned the rule of adding -ed to a verb to indicate paste tense. She is still on her way to understanding that not all verbs follow a regular conjugation pattern, whereas earlier on she may have mimicked the word “ate”, but not have even grasped its past tense meaning.

Can you think of a similar example in mathematics that illustrates how a child’s response may be technically incorrect, while her reasoning indicates that a concept is under construction?

Considering the importance justifiably placed on STEM in today’s education landscape, professional learning and resources geared toward preschool and kindergarten teachers in the area of math instruction is a great investment in our students’ future math achievement



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