PreK Math: Rigorous Instruction through Games

You may have heard that the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) is going statewide in all public Kindergarten classes by 2020. One likely outcome is that people will be paying more attention to children’s math skills at K entry – and before.

We think that’s a good thing!

Setting a solid foundation of math skills in early childhood education is important, not just for Kindergarten readiness, but for 3rd grade achievement, as measured by Virginia SOL’s. Research shows that a foundation in math by K entry is a strong predictor of later success in math and academic success in general.

So let’s talk a bit about PreK math.

First, what should 4-year-olds be learning?

Just like children in grades K-5, PreK kids are developing skills across five key math areas: Numeracy, Operations, Classification and Patterning, Measurement, and Geometry

This video [2:44] shares some of the important math skills that preschoolers are learning in the first two areas: numeracy and operations.

What does good math instruction in PreK look like?

Just like our literacy experts shared in the October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction, math instruction for young children isn’t a matter of “rigorous OR developmentally appropriate” – it can – and should be – BOTH.

What does this look like? What should administrators be observing in PreK classrooms?

LOOK FOR: Playful, explicit and meaningful activities embedded across the day*

LOOK OUT FOR (approaches that are NOT recommended): Rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards) in only teacher-led group activities.

*It begs noting that math instruction should occur throughout the day – including transitions and routines – through guided play in centers AND in activities.

For this blog – and the accompanying Professional Development Suite – the type of activity we’ll focus in on is teaching math through games.

Promoting children’s math learning through games

A major benefit of math games (and any other instructional game) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play. When kids are having fun playing, they are likely to be actively engaged, a necessary ingredient for learning (as we highlighted in the July 2017 blog on fostering active engagement).

Now, simply giving children a math-related game to play is probably not enough to take active engagement to the next level into math learning (where children practice the skills and come to deeper understanding of math concepts).

It takes a teacher targeting content intentionally and using the content-specific instructional skills in addition to keeping learning fun.

Kids playing a math game
UVA-CASTL 2018

Three things to look for when teachers implement math games:

#1 Teachers being intentional and explicit about the 1 or 2 math skill(s) being taught.

Intentional teachers can tell someone what specific skill(s) they plan to focus on and then reflect afterward on how they met learning objectives related to the skill(s).

How do we know the skill is explicit?  The focus should be clear to the teacher, an observer, and even (to some extent) the kids!

An observer and the teacher should be able to identify the focus (within numeracy, operations, classification and patterning, measurement or geometry) based on the steps and words used. Teachers can make learning goals explicit to children before and after games. For instance, a teacher can forecast the skill when introducing the game by saying, “We’re going to stack cups and count one by one to see who has more.” Then, after the game, they can review with children what math skills they demonstrated, for instance, “You worked hard counting. You pointed to each object as you said a number word for it.”

#2 Teachers setting the stage by selecting groups thoughtfully and gathering needed materials.

Formative math assessment can help teachers design groups of children with mixed or similar levels for a particular skill. When children are called to the group activity, the teacher is ready with all the materials and instructions to minimize wait time and maximize engagement.

#3 Teachers using foundational math practices during their instruction, including:

  • Using math language related to the skill, such as, “How many all together?,” “red-blue-red-blue, that’s a pattern!,” numbers being “greater/less than,” objects being “bigger/smaller,” objects being located “over/under”
  • Asking open-ended questions to have children explain their thinking
  • Modeling math skills, like touching objects while counting aloud, and speaking aloud their own thoughts.

Let’s watch a teacher playing a math game in her classroom from our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite [3:52]

As you watch, look for examples of her setting the stage, using math language, and asking questions that encourage children to explain their thinking.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s math skills through games. Go to our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite to view and download our complete set of resources for training and supporting teachers, including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by coaches/supervisors
  • Handout on math games, which includes lesson plans for 3 math games
  • Other key resources from VKRP

Over the next two months, we’ll share more PD suites that continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

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