Research suggests that learning such subjects also helps their reading and writing.

Many adults, including some researchers, believe that “open-ended free play” is good for preschoolers and kindergartners, but “lessons” are not. They don’t believe that the youngest children should be taught specific subjects, especially math, science, engineering, and technology (STEM). But young children show a natural interest in all these topics, and research shows that we can harness that curiosity.

Young children naturally think about and are interested in these subjects. So enhancing that learning clearly isn’t an imposition. Even infants show sensitivity to principles that adults would classify as physics, measurement, and other science topics. Nine-month-olds can distinguish sets of 10 from sets of 15, and toddlers can use geometric information about the shape of their environment to find objects. Toddlers also show early competence in arithmetic, noticing when a small collection of things increases or decreases by one item. By 24 months, many children have learned number words and have begun to count.

Preschoolers’ free play involves substantial amounts of foundational math as they explore patterns, shapes, and spatial relations; compare magnitudes; and count objects. In a similar vein, the scientific questions they ask, such as why questions, show that science is natural and motivating for young children, as are engineering and technology.

STEM gives kids a leg up

Not only do young children have foundational competencies and natural interest in STEM, but research shows that learning such subjects is good for them. For example, early math knowledge strongly predicts later math achievement. Math and science vocabulary and concepts are essential for reading comprehension, because early math and science instruction develops language within those subjects. The benefits may run even deeper.

“Even infants show sensitivity to principles that adults would classify as physics, measurement, and other science topics.”

In one study, we looked at children who, in prekindergarten, experienced a math curriculum we developed—Building Blocks. These children outperformed peers in a control group on four oral language competencies: ability to recall key vocabulary words, use of grammatically complex utterances, willingness to reproduce narratives independently, and inferential reasoning.  We found that the children had learned language skills that had not been directly taught in the math curriculum, and they maintained these skills into their kindergarten year.

Such a transfer of learning to other areas may explain why early math knowledge not only predicts later mathematics achievement, but also predicts later reading achievement, as well as early literature skills do. Similarly, early research results suggest that consistent science experiences can also increase children’s vocabulary and promote the use of more complex grammatical structures.

Unfortunately, young children don’t get enough math and science experiences. Even well-regarded programs for young children tend to have a strong focus on language and social development but a weaker focus on math, and little or no focus on developing children’s potential for scientific thinking. What’s more, the small amount of math and science that young children are taught is often not of high quality.

Learning trajectories are key

How can we support high-quality math and science learning in a way that’s appropriate to children’s development? The answer lies in seeing that learning progresses along research-based, learning trajectories.

learning math

Photo: susanrm8. Creative Commons.

A learning trajectory has three components: a goal, a developmental progression, and instructional activities. To attain a certain competence in a given math or science topic (the goal), students progress through several levels of thinking (the developmental progression), aided by tasks and experiences (instructional activities) designed to build the mental actions-on- objects that enable thinking at each level.

For example, we might set a goal for young children to become competent at counting. A developmental progression means that a child might start by learning simple verbal counting, then learn one-to-one correspondence between counting words and objects. After that, the child learns to connect the final number of the counting process to the cardinal quantity of a set (that is, how many elements the set contains). Finally, the child acquires counting strategies for solving arithmetic problems (up to multi-digit problems, for example, 36 + 12: “I counted 36 . . . 46 . . . then 47, 48!”).

Teachers need help

Many early childhood teachers aren’t eager or prepared to teach STEM subjects, even though children may be eager to learn them. Historically, teachers of young children haven’t been prepared to teach subject- specific knowledge to young children. In-service professional development also tends not to emphasize math and science, despite the existence of learning standards and increased curricular attention to these subjects.

If teachers are to help young children learn STEM subjects, their professional development must help them explore content and teaching methods in depth. In general, research suggests that effective professional development in early STEM should be continuous, intentional, reflective, goal- oriented, and focused on content knowledge and children’s thinking. It should be grounded in particular curriculum materials, and situated in the classroom.

“Even well-regarded programs for young children tend to have a strong focus on language and social development but a weaker focus on math, and little or no focus on developing children’s potential for scientific thinking.”

But all training needn’t occur in the classroom. Teachers also need off-site, intensive training that focuses on the three components of a learning trajectory—goals (the STEM content), developmental progressions, and instructional activities. Then they need time to try out the new strategies in their classrooms, supported by coaches who give them feedback.

The success of our Building Blocks curriculum and other projects can largely be attributed to such professional development that’s organized around learning trajectories. These projects included far more extensive and intensive professional development, ranging from five to 14 full days, compared with the usual one-shot workshop.

The way forward

Current research in learning trajectories points the way toward math learning that is more effective and efficient—but also creative and enjoyable—through culturally relevant and developmentally appropriate curricula and assessment. However, we still have much to learn about teaching certain topics in  math, science, engineering, and technology . We also need to understand better how to improve curriculum and teacher training so that children can realize their full potential in these critical subjects.

Header photo: Seattle Parks. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

Governments should institute a coordinated national effort to improve mathematics and science teaching and learning for all children, with coherent funding, oversight, and policies for early childhood teachers and leaders.

Practice Implications

Practitioners need to recognize that they were often short-changed in the mathematics experiences they received, but that resources are available for them to gain knowledge, skill, and satisfaction in teaching mathematics with learning trajectories, ending the “cycle of abuse”!


 Clements DH & Sarama J (2016), Math, science, and technology in the early grades, Future of Children 26.2