Colorful numbers written in chalk on a blackboard

Little Mathematician Project sets sights on early math skills

One of the greatest periods of brain development occurs from birth through age five – and the learning children do in their earliest years plays a large role in laying the foundation for their educational success.

“Research demonstrates that mathematical thinking is cognitively foundational and children’s early math knowledge strongly predicts their later success in math,” said College of Education & Human Development Associate Professor Kyong-Ah Kwon, who is working with undergraduate students Jaelyn Jeff and Seon Woo Kim on a research project that explores preschoolers’ understanding of math.

The Little Mathematician Project takes a multi-pronged approach — teaching hands-on math activities with small groups, encouraging parental involvement with workshops and parents’ nights, and providing professional development for teachers who want to incorporate more in-depth math curriculum in preschool settings.

“So far, we have created various math activities rooted in play,” Jeff said. “Young children learn through play, so our activities are geared to be lively, playful and all together fun.”

Kwon, Jeff and Kim will be conducting their research in both of the College of Education & Human Development’s Child Development Centers, where they’ll read math picture books to students and follow up with related math activities. Rather than explicitly teaching children math lessons, they’ll encourage students to take the math concepts they already know and apply them in their activities.

“We’re using their prior knowledge as a basis and ask them challenging questions to help them use their critical thinking skills,” Kim explained. “We’re trying to make an effective math learning environment for children and incorporate math activities into children’s daily routines.”

Kwon and her students hope to not only create developmentally-appropriate training lessons and materials for teachers, but also to close the achievement gap between children from low-income households and their more affluent peers.

“I really want to see what we can do to help children maximize their math skills and knowledge in early years and ultimately close the academic gaps between children from low-income family household and their affluent peers,” Kwon said.

“Jaelyn and Seon are learning how to interact with children in a meaningful way and guide them to think more deeply. They share their observations and reflections with me and other lab members and we learn from each other. They are very thoughtful, reflective and professional. They are such an asset and a big contributor in my research team.” -Associate Professor Kyong-Ah Kwon, on what her students bring to her research project