Early Childhood

Games Can Help Preschoolers Learn Math Concepts, Study Finds

By Marva Hinton — July 14, 2017 3 min read
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How can early-childhood educators best help children from low-income families succeed when it comes to learning math?

Researchers from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and New York University recently conducted a study with 1,540 children enrolled in preschool in Delhi, India. Most of them were between 4 and 5 1/2. The researchers wanted to see what effect, if any, playing simple, specially designed games would have on the children’s ability to learn math concepts.

They chose India because compulsory education is relatively new there, and many of the poorest children come from families where their parents have no formal education. Consistent studies have shown that these children are at high risk of failing to learn the basics such as reading or arithmetic, so the researchers thought this would be fertile ground to test the impact of a simple intervention.

For four months, some of the children played games designed to provide introductory lessons about numbers and geometry, while others played games designed to teach social skills, and a third group did not play any games.

The study, entitled “Cognitive Science in the field: A preschool intervention durably enhances intuitive but not formal mathematics,” was published this month in the journal Science.

Study Outcome

The researchers found that the children who played the math games made some learning gains in their understanding of numbers and geometry, and those gains continued more than a year later. The students learned things such as number words and shape names. But those learning gains did not translate to better academic performance in primary school.

Although those were not the results they had been hoping for, Elizabeth Spelke, a psychology professor at Harvard and a co-author of the study, said there were some positive takeaways.

“We learned that we can develop games that engage kids and give them the kinds of experiences that kids from more advantaged backgrounds would be getting at home,” said Spelke, who led the development of the games and the assessments used to test the students’ learning gains.

She said one of the most remarkable things to her was watching these children in India play games that had been tested on children living in Cambridge, Mass.

“The ways in which children played was so similar, and the things that children learned from the games [were] so much alike,” said Spelke.

So why didn’t the students see better academic outcomes in primary school?

Spelke theorizes that it has to do with how math is commonly taught in Indian schools.

“Indian schools, the primary schools teach mathematics largely by rote,” said Spelke. “They teach children to memorize facts of arithmetic from the beginning. There isn’t a lot of emphasis on intuitive concepts, on math games and things like that.”

Some of the language is also different. In preschool, students may call an oblong shape an egg shape, but in primary school they’re expected to call it an oval.

“The way primary school is organized and the way the preschools are organized are just too different from each other to get effects in one setting to carry over to the other setting,” said Spelke.

The researchers are testing this hypothesis in several ways. One involves introducing math games into primary schools, and another involves introducing the symbols and terms used in primary school to preschool students through math games.

Takeaways for U.S. Educators?

“It’s too soon at this point for us to be making any changes to our curricula until we’ve conducted much more research and learned much more about the various different experiences that need to come together for a young child for them to be ready for primary school,” said Spelke.

And, she stresses that curricula should be based on evidence.

“Our experience in India suggests that one can devise meaningful and informative experiments the outcome of which will benefit all children by giving us valuable information allowing us to go beyond our intuitions about what’s going to work in studies with children and also to go beyond the findings that we can get in the laboratory when we try on a very small scale to teach a child a new thing or to measure what they already know,” said Spelke. “Field experiments can actually tell us what works in real classrooms in the real world and allow us to improve education for all children in the U.S. and everywhere else.”

Photo: Preschool students in India play games designed to teach them math concepts and social skills. Courtesy MIT

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.