Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative expands an innovative math program for educators of infants and toddlers

Math All Around Me is working with teachers on strategies to help children 3 and younger develop foundational skills that are the precursors to more complicated mathematical thinking.

For the past two years, Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative has been working with early childhood educators as part of an innovative program to help foster important mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills in infants and toddlers. Now, the program is expanding.

Math All Around Me (MAAM) launched in 2014 as a joint initiative with The Ounce of Prevention Fund to understand “precursor concepts” that children age three and younger comprehend and lead to more complex mathematical thinking later in life. Through a second phase of MAAM now underway, the Collaborative will provide professional development to 50 educators in the Chicago area who work with infants and toddlers. Learning labs will help clarify what mathematical thinking looks like in infants and toddlers and how educators can support it in the classroom.

“Nobody else is doing this work focused on children age 3 and younger,” says Mary Hynes-Berry, Ph.D., content leader for MAAM and longtime member of Erikson’s teacher education faculty. “There is existing research that focuses on cognitive development and the formation of early math thinking, but we are the only ones researching how adults can foster this type of thinking in young children.”

Since it was established in 2007, the Collaborative has been a national leader in transforming the understanding, teaching, and learning of foundational mathematics for children age 8 and younger. Through professional development programs, research, publications, conference presentations, and a robust online presence, the Collaborative helps early childhood educators acquire knowledge of early math content and approach the teaching of foundational math concepts with confidence to provide children the foundation for a lifetime of mathematical learning and thinking.

The idea of teaching math to young children — particularly infants and toddlers — often makes teachers anxious, Dr. Hynes-Berry says. But through MAAM, they learn that foundational math is not always about numbers, but rather about logical processes, such as making comparisons between objects, identifying attributes, and perceiving patterns and change — experiences for which infants are born “hard-wired” to understand.

But because the brain develops on a “use or lose it” imperative, MAAM works with teachers to give them strategies for how to interact with babies and toddlers in ways that support use of these precursor concepts so that children enter preschool primed to develop explicitly mathematical thinking and skills. Teachers learn that activities like exploring objects with a child and talking about sensations or characteristics of the items the child finds pleasing help develop precision and logical thinking skills that are the foundation for later math learning. When teachers have a better understanding of the thinking that is developing in a child, they can be more intentional about what they say and do, providing language that names important ideas and experiences that inspire them.

“It is important to help children read the world around them and think about it in a systematic, logical way,” Dr. Hynes-Berry says. “For example, learning how to differentiate between attributes is a precursor to counting. You can’t answer ‘how many’ unless you know how many of what.”

During the second phase of MAAM, the Collaborative also will conduct research that demonstrates the program’s impact on teachers and children. Acquiring data and measuring the program’s effectiveness will help establish a greater understanding of early math learning and potentially lead to the widespread use of teaching techniques that further mathematical thinking in infants and toddlers and lead to greater academic achievement as children get older.

In the future, the Collaborative will use its findings from phase two of MAAM as the basis for developing materials for educators that are focused on math learning for children from birth to age 3. These tools would complement the Collaborative’s existing materials that focus on children age 3 to 8, helping clarify an early math learning trajectory through all stages of early childhood.

“If we change how educators and caregivers working with infants and toddlers think about math and help them become aware of how they can interact with children in ways that foster mathematical thinking, that’s where the real impact lies,” Dr. Hynes-Berry says.

Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative and MAAM were launched thanks, in part, to significant support from the CME Group Foundation. The CME Group Foundation and the Pritzker Children’s Initiative will support MAAM throughout its second phase.