What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

**How did you become fascinated with early math education?**

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

**Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?**

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

**What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?**

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

**How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?**

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

**How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?**

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”