Informal teaching methods, such as game playing, can improve preschoolers’ mathematical abilities, a team of researchers has found. However, this approach does not enhance later learning of primary school mathematics.

Informal Methods Show Some Promise in Developing Math Skills, New Study Shows
Informal teaching methods, such as game playing, can improve preschoolers’ mathematical abilities, a team of researchers has found. However, this approach does not enhance later learning of primary school mathematics. The study was conducted in classrooms in Delhi, India (above). Image courtesy of J-PAL South Asia.

Informal teaching methods, such as game playing, can improve preschoolers’ mathematical abilities, a team of researchers has found. However, this approach does not enhance later learning of primary school mathematics.

Despite the limited impact of these methods, the study, which appears in the journal Science, points to new ways to engage first-generation school children, who may not be prepared for traditional instruction when they enter the classroom at a young age.

The study, led by researchers at Harvard University and MIT, was conducted in preschool classrooms in Delhi, India in partnership with the education non-profit, Pratham.

“Young children today face a challenge at around age 5: they must transition from learning in a spontaneous, informal manner to learning formally in school,” explains Moira Dillon, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s first author. “For many children, especially those living in poverty and who have parents who did not experience formal schooling themselves, this transition is particularly difficult. Our study designs and tests a mathematics games curriculum for such children and is aimed at exercising their intuitive sense of number and geometry in an informal, preschool classroom setting to give them the preparation they need to begin formal mathematics learning in school.”

Traditional early-school curricula seek to build on the verbal and mathematical skills that preschool children with educated parents typically gain by interacting with family members who can read, count, and calculate, the researchers note.

However, first-generation school children may be hampered by a lack of opportunities to engage with literate and numerate adults during activities that require some formal verbal and numerical abilities.

With this in mind, the researchers hypothesized that an alternative approach—one that still seeks to tap into universal cognitive abilities that emerge early in human development—might better prepare these children for school.

To test this, they designed and evaluated a game-based preschool curriculum intended to exercise children’s emerging skills in numbers and geometry. This curriculum included sorting cards by comparing approximate numerical values, finding shapes, and reading maps. Children who played these math games were compared both to children who received the traditional preschool curriculum and to children who played games that exercised social, as opposed to mathematical, skills. Overall, the study, spanning about 18 months, included approximately 1500 children in more than 200 Indian preschools located in some of Delhi’s poorest areas.

The results showed that in the short term, the game-based instruction improved both students’ intuitive mathematical abilities (e.g., numerical estimation) as well as their formal skills (e.g., the recognition of numerals and shapes by their names).

While improvements to children’s intuitive mathematical skills persisted at least a year after the intervention, the informal, game-based curriculum had no apparent effect on children’s later learning of formal mathematics during their first year of primary school.

Despite this, observes Dillon, a graduate student at Harvard at the time of the study, “the games were nevertheless effective in engaging children and getting them to learn in a robust and sustained fashion, and there is great promise in the field testing of basic research theories of cognitive development to uncover how children learn in the complex environments in which they live.”

The research was funded by the Union Bank of Switzerland and Optimus Foundation, the National Science Foundation (DGE-1144152, DGE-1122374), and Harvard University’s Foundations of Human Behavior Program and Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative.