Special Report
Early Childhood

Preschool Play Imparts Math’s ‘Building Blocks’

By Sean Cavanagh — March 21, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 3 min read

Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Julie Sarama, a researcher who has developed strategies for building the mathematical skills of preschool students.

A pair of New York scholars have a mission: to “mathematize” preschool.

Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama have spent the past decade developing a curriculum that seeks to cultivate young students’ math skills through the types of games, artwork, songs, and puzzles that those children enjoy, as well as through computer software.

Known as Building Blocks, the curriculum attempts to build students’ geometric, spatial, and quantitative ability, which researchers say provides an important foundation for later success in math.

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The curriculum’s use of a mix of classroom strategies not only increases students’ enthusiasm for math, but also makes the approach effective among students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and ability levels, its developers say. Building Blocks earned a thumbs-up from the What Works Clearinghouse, the U.S. Department of Education’s center for judging programs and practices, which found that it had a positive effect on student learning.

“Our activities are open-ended enough to allow teachers to modify them to meet each individual kid’s needs,” says Sarama, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, who is married to Clements. Students “stay engaged, interested in math,” she adds, while teachers are “figuring out students’ misconceptions. You’re asking, ‘How do you know?’ ”

The curriculum is based on research about how children learn math-specific tasks, such as how to count, as well as what math is appropriate for students by age level, explains Clements. He is a professor of math education and early-childhood education at the same university, and a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group charged with identifying effective teaching and learning strategies in that subject.

Software Sprinkled In

After pilot testing, Building Blocks was first evaluated in 39 preschool classrooms with 340 students in western New York state. It now is in use with 23,000 students nationwide.

Now Clements and Sarama are testing another program they created that is based on the Building Blocks principles and also targets diverse populations, for preschool through 1st grade. The program is known as triad, which stands for technology-enhanced, research-based, instruction, assessment, and professional development.

Teachers who use Building Blocks work with entire classes and in small groups, using paper-and-pencil activities, board games, and puzzles. The skills are reinforced through computer activities sprinkled throughout the week.

Pupils using the scholars’ software can turn, flip, and try to fit together objects of different shapes and sizes on their screens—tasks that help nurture and reinforce their grasp of patterns, shapes, and basic principles of geometry.

The computer-based schedule is flexible; some teachers may have students use it as little as five to 15 minutes, twice a week, Clements says.

Teachers who use the curriculum receive professional development that exposes them to research on how students learn math, and how to apply that knowledge through Building Blocks activities. One teacher who has benefited from Building Blocks is Karen M. Ransom, a preschool teacher at Dr. George E. Blackman School, No. 54, in Buffalo, who uses it in her classes.

Some of the students Ransom works with come to her with little or no ability to count; others arrive with relatively strong skills. The curriculum allows her to tailor activities to meet individual needs.

One of the most effective Building Blocks activities, she says, is a card game that helps students develop a sense of the sequence of numbers. Ransom also asks them to handle differently shaped wood and plastic pieces and try to make them fit together—and explain why when they don’t fit.

“It provides teachers with a knowledge of how children learn,” Ransom says of the curriculum. “And it allows teachers to make a decision about where [their students] are on the continuum, and then move them along.”

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