Mathematics is more than numbers

One Swedish study has examined how teachers work with mathematics in early childhood education. While the participants concentrated intently on understanding numbers, less focus was placed on spatial relations, shapes and geometry.



Mathematics is an important subject, not least in ECEC institutions. It is, in fact, a vast, comprehensive subject area that includes many types of knowledge and skills. Mathematics can be understood, learned and taught in different ways. What do ECEC teachers read into the concept of mathematics, and how do they actually approach mathematics in early childhood education? Finnish researcher Camilla Björklund was curious to learn more about this. Together with researcher Wolmet Barendregt, she has studied awareness of mathematics among early childhood educators in Sweden.

Spatial relations

Björklund and Barendregt compiled a questionnaire that they sent to 147 ECEC teachers in southern and central Sweden. The 116 responses they received indicate that most ECEC teachers are aware of the physical environment in ECEC institutions and use it to encourage children to explore mathematical concepts and contexts like location and direction. All the same, the teachers rarely use spatial relations as a point of departure for discussing mathematical concepts or presenting the children with new mathematical challenges.

‘The results indicate that the teachers often talk about mathematics when questions are raised by the children themselves, but rarely make up mathematical problems for them. In other words, they do not challenge the children’s ideas and abilities unless the children are already familiar with the content or strategies’, Björklund elaborates.

Making the invisible visible

Those taking part in the study responded that they often had mathematics in mind when planning activities. Most stated that they usually take their point of departure in the mathematics that arise from activities initiated by the children themselves. Far fewer stated that they planned more goal-oriented exploration of specific mathematical principles.

‘Many children seem to learn a lot on their own by asking questions that give them basic knowledge. However, the mission of an ECEC institution is to make the invisible visible. That is, kindergartens strive to make children cognisant of what they experience, at the same time as offering them knowledge that they would not be aware of on their own’, explains Björklund.

‘Possessing knowledge about the world around them builds their self-esteem, supporting them in play as well as in other situations in which they can use mathematics to describe the world and resolve problems.
The mission of an ECEC institution is to make the invisible visible.’

Coming up short in geometry

The participants in the study responded that they work a great deal with understanding numbers, but far less with spatial relations, shapes and geometry. Björklund finds it hard to say why that is the case. ‘One possible explanation might be that these aspects are not perceived as mathematics. It may also be quite simply that it is more challenging to work with this type of mathematics in ECEC institutions. Regardless of the reason, it is unfortunate if ECEC teachers are not intentionally making use of geometry and pattern recognition. If ECEC institutions fail to raise awareness of this, children can miss out on many opportunities for learning’, according to Björklund.

‘This is a problem in the sense that children do not spontaneously notice mathematical contexts or explore them during play, meaning they lose out on opportunities to develop basic skills as a platform for more formal teaching in schools. Even if one makes mathematics more concrete in schools by using different materials, children need to develop a feeling for numbers and for correlations, even before starting school’, she adds.

All-important knowledge

Björklund and Barendregt also find reason for optimism about the results of the study. Among other things, they mention that the participants are good at talking with the children about maths, and that staff are curious about the questions posed by the children and their discoveries. This is a very good point of departure for further developing the educational approach and mathematical knowledge of childcare workers, writes the researchers. To help the children learn and understand the diversity of mathematics, ECEC teachers must, in fact, possess appropriate competence themselves.

‘If one has a good grounding in mathematics, one also recognises possible approaches to maths and to examining numbers, spatial relations and different correlations. If one feels insecure about maths, it may be difficult to capitalise on spontaneous events and turn them into teaching opportunities and to view them as exciting to explore together with the children’, concludes Björklund.