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Why is Math Important in Early Learning?

May 31, 2019    |   Math & Numeracy

Early literacy is regularly discussed in conversations about early learning, while early math skills, are often not given as much consideration. Preschool and early learning curriculum emphasizes writing, learning letters, and word identification as part of kindergarten readiness, while giving little or no attention to number sense and basic math concepts, which are also important skills for children to know as they enter elementary school.

In fact, math curriculum is often almost completely left out of a typical preschool schedule. The University of Denver shared that researchers have calculated only 58 seconds per day of math instruction in preschools where children spend six hours a day.

Why is Math Important in Early Learning?

Introducing math-oriented activities to children before kindergarten, helps set them up for academic success in elementary school and beyond. A 2007 study entitled School Readiness and Later Achievement found that early math skills are one of the best predictors of later success. The research was organized by economist and education professor, Greg Duncan, who is a national expert on the importance of strong early math skills. Duncan explains, “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.”

In addition to setting children up for later academic success, math skills are foundational for  important skills such as critical thinking and logic. Dr. Jie-Q Chen, professor of Child Development at the Erikson Institute, principal investigator of the Early Math Collaborative, and co-author of Big ideas of early mathematics: What teachers of young children need to know explains that “math is the language of logic…math builds reasoning, which leads to comprehension. Developing a mentally organized way of thinking is critical.”

The Basics

Concordia University Portland shares three basic math skills that children should learn in preschool to build a foundation of understanding. When children understand these concepts early, elementary teachers are able to focus on the application of the concepts and children are  better prepared to learn more advanced skills.

  1. Number sense: Number sense is the first step in math awareness.  It describes the basics of learning about numbers, including counting forwards and backwards in order to understand the relationship between numbers.

  2. Learning numbers through representation or pictures: From a young age, children can build relationships between numbers and represented items. Numbers can be represented with objects, pictures, or family members as a way to make the concept more real and less abstract to young learners.

  3. Adding and subtracting: Adding and subtracting are more advanced skills that should be taught after the introduction of number sense and representation. The basics of addition and subtraction can be introduced through normal daily interactions between children, such as sharing and counting snacks, blocks, or crayons.

Circle Time Math

Dr. Deborah Stipek of Stanford University notes that Circle Time offers a great opportunity to introduce and reinforce math concepts.  She recommends the following concepts and Circle Time activities:

Numbers and Operations

Children can work on counting, adding, and subtracting during circle time.  Counting by category deepens children’s number sense. Ask, for example, how many boys,  how many girls, and how many children in total are in the classroom.


Preschoolers enjoy working with rhythmic and visual patterns, and these are a great way to introduce math skills. During circle time, have children follow your lead in clapping out different rhythmic patterns and then talk about the pattern– “three loud claps, one soft clap, one stomp.” Find patterns in children’s clothing and around the room, such as stripes, checkers, and dots.


Comparing various sizes, such as the height or length of arms and legs can help children develop a basic understanding of measurement.

Shape and Space

Encourage children to discuss the shapes they see, by asking them to find items that have triangles, squares, circles and then comparing each shape to notice the differences. Many children’s books introduce shape and space math concepts and can be enjoyed with children during circle time.

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