Mastering math is child’s play

Four-year-old Danny calls out excitedly to a classmate passing by. “Estoy ganando,” he says in Spanish. “I’m winning!” Facing no actual opponents, the boy eagerly strings colored beads onto a pipe cleaner, counting them aloud as he goes. A few weeks later, Daniella, also 4, squeals with delight, her braid flying, as she rolls a ball toward plastic-bottle “bowling pins” and records her score on a sheet of paper taped to the wall.

Both children are part of a study involving the early-education enrichment program Math-Ways. Developed by FIU College of Education Professor Charles Bleiker, the program uses 15 simple activities—or “games,” as Bleiker calls them, despite their mostly noncompetitive nature—to boost the math skills of preschoolers. The activities require just 15 minutes of one-on-one time per week, over several months, between each youngster and a facilitator, in this case one of Bleiker’s graduate students. The results to date have been eye-popping.

In a post-assessment of the subjects who participated during the first year, Bleiker saw the children in the intervention group outperform those in the control group by an average of more than 30 percent on a standardized end-of-year assessment. Both groups began the school year with nearly identical averages on the same test.

“This is a big effect,” says Bleiker, who is replicating the study during the current school year with a new set of four-year-olds and will publish his research in 2015. “We’re pretty confident that, you do it like we’ve been doing it, and you’ll get similar results.”

Learning at play: The leap-frog game board used in the Math-Ways program was designed and made by Professor Charles Bleiker and his graduate students.

Learning at play: The leap-frog game board used in the Math-Ways program was designed and made by Professor Charles Bleiker and his graduate students.

Making the results all the sweeter: the children in the study all come from low-income families and are being raised in homes in which Spanish is the dominant language. (Math-Ways instruction is given in English.) They attend school in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, all of them enrolled in Florida’s free Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK).

The U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2012 that incoming kindergarteners who were poor scored an average of 23 percent lower on start-of-the-year standardized math assessments than their middle-class peers.

Says Yukari Okamoto, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert in early-childhood math education, “We know that it is children’s early math performance—not reading—that can more accurately predict their later academic performance. Programs like this one can help children build foundational skills during preschool years, which would positively influence their later academic success.”

The program offers children a roughly six-month boost in academic knowledge, Bleiker says. The preschoolers who received his intervention during the first year, for example, started kindergarten in the fall with math facility equivalent to that of a kindergartener more than midway through the school year.

Bleiker believes that early intervention could even out the playing field for those who come from economic disadvantage. He plans to test that hypothesis and investigate the program’s long-term scholastic benefits by following study participants as they take annual assessments in later grades.

Mercedes Ramos, director of the church-based preschool at which Bleiker has been testing his program, says children enjoy the activities and look forward to their weekly sessions.

“They find it more motivating than the regular curriculum,” Ramos says. And when compared to the control group, she adds, the students receiving intervention display greater enthusiasm. “They are more motivated to learn math and more excited to approach learning tasks.”

Industrious little Danny is a case in point. He on his own took the initiative to thread beads onto a second pipe cleaner to reach a whopping 100. Says Bleiker, “It’s way beyond what anyone would expect of a 4-year-old.” By contrast, the state’s VPK program sets a goal of children being able to count to just 20 by the time they complete the academic year.

Bleiker plans to run teacher workshops and to post videos online to guide both teachers and interested parents in how to use the activities, which range from stacking and counting cubes to a matching game that uses cards with numbers instead of pictures. Each one targets basic competencies such as identifying and naming numbers, comparing and ordering numbers, and understanding that a larger number can be broken into two or more smaller ones. The children are routinely directed to say, write, finger trace or talk about numbers as they play.

In addition to quantifiable improvements in math, Bleiker recognizes positive unintended consequences of the program. He cites an increase in students’ English vocabulary as they learn words and phrases not typically introduced in preschool, such as “greater than/less than.” And the facilitator’s constant reinforcement that a child is “winning” as he or she progresses through an activity promotes a sense of accomplishment and elevates individual self esteem.

Most important of all, Bleiker believes, early math intervention could have a life-changing impact.

“It could be that you encourage kids, and they become engineers and scientists,” Bleiker says. “We’ve got all these immigrants coming in, and if they become the engineers and the scientists and the mathematicians, that just paves the way for even greater success, and that’s the future of our society.”