Early Math in the Common Core State Standards: Balance at New Heights

Early Math in the Common Core State Standards: Balance at New Heights

As kindergartens across the country begin to transition to the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics, the aim for achievement gains is high. However, standards don’t take children places on their own. As both an education professional and a mom of a kindergartner  I feel awfully sure that there is more to it. It depends on us, teachers and parents, navigating with panache what can feel like a taut line: it’s a feat of balance at new heights.

The Wire-Walker’s Balancing Pole

Luckily, walking the high wire becomes much easier with the right tool: a balancing pole. Feel a precarious lean? Raise one end of the pole just a hair, and get your center of gravity back where it should be. So what is on each end of this metaphorical pole? On one side, disciplined focus: the “fewer, higher, clearer” of the Common Core State Standards, and the research behind them. On the other side, flexible play: the kind of child-driven, interactive activity that capitalizes on the developmental stages of young children. I have high and particular learning goals for my son, but I do know and love that he is a goofball.

One End: Standards and Research

On the first side of the pole are the standards and the research. In 2009, the National Research Council offered comprehensive guidance on what matters most in early childhood mathematics. While geometry and measurement matter too, the big headline is that number is king in early mathematics. Research on early identification and intervention in math shows that students at highest risk of math difficulties later in school are those with weaknesses in number, as early as kindergarten or before (Gersten, Clarke, Jordan, Newman-Gonchar, Haymond, & Wilkins, 2012; Jordan, Glutting, Dyson, Hassinger-Das, & Irwin, 2012). The Common Core State Standards offer a high degree of focus on number—counting and cardinality, number operations—and follows what we know about building and expanding these foundational number skills in a logical progression.

The Other End: Developmentally Appropriate Fun

On the balancing pole, the counterbalance is developmentally appropriate practice. What’s that? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2009) and other groups have offered guidelines that in essence say this: goofballs and other young children don’t do well in classrooms that tell them to go sit quietly and practice their numbers. Instead, they thrive in supportive, responsive, play-based environments where they make choices, try new things, and feel safe when things don’t work out right. Successful classrooms capitalize on young children’s natural curiosity and physical energy. They incorporate chances to be social, to make connections to home, and to learn how to manage emotions, even while learning to read or add.

Feeling Balance: Number Games

So what does balance look like? One way to find balance is by incorporating key number concepts into play-based activities, both in the classroom and at home. Dice and path board games are one great example of this approach.

In games using dice and markers on a path, there’s lots of opportunity for development of number sense. When children roll two dice, they start off counting up all the dots they see (K.CC.4) and then moving that many on some kind of a path (an introduction to the concept of number as distance, like a number line). As they practice with dice, children eventually don’t have to count dots, instead beginning to subitize or immediately recognize quantities: that first die shows five. Then they count on, adding the second die: “Six, seven, eight” (K.CC.2, 1.OA.5). After more play, children recognize some sums without counting at all, and they start to wish for certain combinations (or missing addends) to land at a certain place (K.OA.4, K.OA.5, 1.OA.4, 1.OA.8).

In the classroom, the number game approach can work as a targeted, evidence-based intervention. In a Head Start research study, students ended up making significant gains in number identification, number comparison, and counting when number spinners were used in a game called the Great Race (Ramani and Siegler, 2008). A tweaked version of this game was also used with high risk students in a kindergarten intervention emphasizing alignment to Common Core State Standards, producing significant positive effects (Jordan et al., 2012).

At home, a hugely important place for children’s early learning, many families know about shared book reading. Many, though, don’t know where to start in math. As educators we can help them understand that choosing dice and path games on family game night can pack a lot of power.

What Are Your Ideas?

What are your favorite activities or games–for the classroom or the home–that support the Standards focused on number? I have favorite apps on my phone by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and Motion Math, and number games from Everyday Math and from my son’s gym teacher. I also have favorite number activities that just happen to result in the dinner table getting set. What about you?

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