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Benefits of early math experiences add up

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While literacy is often seen as a cornerstone to scholastic achievement, and many parents devote a lot of time and energy into nurturing their small child’s love of reading, studies show that mathematical reasoning ability may be even more crucial as a building block for success in school and beyond. That’s why experts say more attention should be paid to early numeracy in childhood. Fostering this love in math often leads to advanced learning and an interest in AIME math.

When children understand early math concepts before they enter kindergarten, research shows, they perform better on math and reading tests in later years. But many children enter kindergarten already behind in math, at least partly because some parents lack confidence in their own math skills.

“Math, early numeracy, has definitely played a back seat to efforts to support early literacy development,” said Ben Clarke, an associate professor at the University of Oregon and an expert in math instruction. “But the same rationale that led to investments in a preventive framework in early literacy are present in mathematics. The relationship between early and later math is actually stronger than that of early to later literacy.”

Building that bridge is one of the core motivations behind Count Play Explore, a website and app that was developed through the California Early Math Initiative led by the Fresno County Office of Education. An engaging collection of resources for parents and teachers looking for something fun and meaningful to do with young children, this is a digital portal designed to dispel preconceived notions of math as stuffy and dull.

“We’re aware that so many adults have a lot of math anxiety that is unfortunately passed along to children, and it’s preventable,” said Carolyn Pfister, an education administrator for the State Board of Education who helped develop the project. “It’s pretty common for parents to think that math is really the responsibility of the school, but they have more of a hand in ownership in developing their children’s literacy. We believe that can also be leveraged for building math understanding.”

A parental antipathy for math may be one reason why the playing field is often uneven when children first come to kindergarten. Some already have a sense of what math means and how it functions in the world while others lack a basic understanding of numbers. That gap only gets harder to close as time goes on, experts say.

Declining math scores on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, experts say, underscore the need to shore up early learning efforts.

Early exposure to key concepts has proved effective in math studies. Clarke conducted a study of kindergartners in which some students received extra math instruction designed to help them understand the basics of whole numbers, while others got a more traditional math curriculum, which focuses on topics such as addition and subtraction. The students who got extra attention did better on math tests than their peers and the kids who benefited the most were the ones who started out with the lowest math skills. Building confidence is a crucial part of the lesson.

“The critical piece is making sure they are well-supported and successful — that breeds the confidence to continue to engage and learn mathematics,” Clarke said. “The greater your degree of math risk (i.e. lower initial skill), the greater the impact.”

A facility for math isn’t just something you are born with, experts say. Instead, mathematical thinking is a muscle that can be strengthened until it’s well-developed enough to solve the most complex problem.

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