boy looks through tube

A 2-year-old boy looks through a tube while playing at The Children’s Center at Caltech in Pasadena on April 8.  Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

PASADENA — While many preschools struggle to integrate math into their programs, an early education center housed at the California Institute of Technology has long made math a central pillar in a program that uses the scientific method to engage children as young as 6 months old.

The Children’s Center at Caltech, which places a significant focus on math and science, may provide a model for other programs to follow. Researchers say a strong grasp of early math concepts is a critical element of long-term student success.

Children who enter kindergarten with an understanding of basic math concepts – like where a number might fall on a number line – were more likely to be succeeding in math and reading by fifth grade, according to a 2007 study by economist Greg Duncan from the University of California, Irvine.

Yet few early childhood education certification or degree courses require math classes and few offer explicit instruction in math, according to a December EdSource report on early math. While basic mathematical ideas like counting and shapes are often part of preschool instruction, far more time is spent on literacy skills, researchers have found. A study of programs in North Carolina and Tennessee found that half-day preschools spent only five minutes a day on math, compared to nearly 20 minutes on reading.

The idea at The Children’s Center is that the scientific method – ask a question, guess an answer, experiment, observe, conclude – provides the best basis for learning any topic, including math. The center’s director, Susan Wood, designed the curriculum with a focus on allowing young children to predict how something will work, test their idea and observe the result as a part of nearly every activity. (See slideshow below for a photo tour of the center’s hands-on activities.)

“Science is the perfect umbrella because everything falls under it,” said Wood, who has run her program for 13 years out of three buildings on the edge of Caltech’s sprawling Pasadena campus. Science is the study of the whole world, something young children do naturally, Wood said. So whether children are figuring out that a dropped ball will fall down every time or puzzling out the alphabet, Wood thinks learning the steps of the scientific method will help children to know their world and become more engaged learners. “That’s not true with literacy,” she said.

Every room at The Children’s Center, starting with the infant room and moving up to the 4- and 5-year-old room, is stuffed with activities designed with the principle of scientific engagement in mind.

blocks arranged with figures to demonstrate over and under

Blocks displayed in the infant room at The Children’s Center at Caltech are meant to illustrate the concepts of “over” and “under.” Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

At first glance, the rooms look like preschool rooms anywhere, but each toy or game has been chosen with a specific learning target in mind. A low shelf in the infant room holds squishy blocks and plastic figures in easy reach of crawling and toddling babies, but these blocks were deliberately chosen to illustrate the principles of “over,” “under” and “through.” The blocks are displayed so that they form an archway, with one figure on top of the arch and another underneath it. This deliberate placement helps students begin to understand one of the fundamental ideas of geometry: how objects can be described in relation to other objects. The concept is so basic for adults, it’s easy to forget that it must be explicitly taught to young children in order for them to develop the spatial reasoning needed for many math-related challenges. 

This kind of careful planning extends to all of the materials at The Children’s Center: there is no chaos here, no jumbled toy boxes.

That’s on purpose, Wood said. A box full of toys is “too challenging,” she said, because it presents materials in a senseless, disorganized way. “Children should be able to read the environment and the environment should instruct,” she said.

Wood doesn’t expect the environment alone to provide instruction. Teachers interact with kids throughout the day, asking open-ended questions like: “What do you think will happen if you do that?” and “Why do you think that happened?” They don’t offer specific answers very often, instead encouraging children to come up with their own answers. They also lead group activities like music lessons and planting and caring for classroom plants, and significant portions of the day are dedicated to free play.

Such open-ended questioning – encouraging students to puzzle through problems – is considered a best practice among early childhood experts, but the method is not always in evidence in California’s many preschool classrooms. Part of that may be that many teachers have less training and aren’t as well compensated as those Wood employs. She requires and provides ongoing professional training for her lead and assistant teachers and asks all her teachers, even assistant teachers, to hold or be working toward a child development permit, the state’s minimum requirement for lead teachers. She also pays them on a sliding scale based on experience and qualifications that ranges from just under $40,000 to nearly $50,000 annually. That’s more than twice what a Head Start teacher in the state can expect to make.

The interaction with teachers, coupled with the activities offered at The Children’s Center, can help prepare children to tackle higher level math, research has found. For example, children in Wood’s program might play a game that involves arranging colored dice into a specific sequence. The ability to recognize patterns is a key skill in helping students puzzle out mathematical problems later on, experts say. For instance, multiplication tables and prime numbers are much easier to learn if one understands how to discern patterns.

child with colored blocks

Ariana Hosseini, 3, extends a pattern of blue and yellow blocks in her preschool classroom at The Children’s Center at Caltech. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

In contrast, Wood said, knowing the order of the letters in the alphabet is not important to learning how to read.

“Kids have amazing intuition for basic math concepts and it’s really a matter of providing the vocabulary and support to translate this intuitive knowledge into more concrete math skills that will be the foundation for later math learning,” said UC Irvine’s Duncan.

Wood guarantees 89 of her 99 slots to the children of faculty, students and staff at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in exchange for free rent on the campus. The full-day program serves children from 6 months to 4 years old and is offered year-round. The waiting list has five times as many children on it as the number of students who are admitted. There is no application process other than proving your connection to the university. “We just work with what we’ve got,” Wood said.

Tuition ranges from $14,400 to $18,600 for full-time care depending on the age of the child, about the standard range for private preschool in California.

Wood’s unique curriculum has its origins in the early care and education department at University of California, Los Angeles, where Wood taught at the children’s center on campus in the early ’90s. When Wood was first hired, the university had just received a grant from NASA to explore the best ways to teach science to young children, said Gay Macdonald, executive director of UCLA’s Early Care and Education program.

“Teachers like Susan just get it. It’s not foreign and difficult for them (to teach science and math),” Macdonald said. “Others who are literacy and art focused probably felt one advantage in this field (of early education) is you might never be required to take a math class.”

No studies have been conducted to track the success of students after they leave Wood’s program, although Wood has worked to explain her methods to other educators by speaking at conferences and teaching in early education programs at community colleges.

The program at UCLA, headed by Macdonald, has made an even larger push to spread its findings about how to teach math and science to young children, including publishing a textbook and consulting with the Jim Henson Company to develop the animated children’s show “Sid the Science Kid”. (Fair warning: The link to “Sid the Science Kid” plays music.) The textbook is even about to go international. It’s getting translated into Chinese.

Early educators in the United States are good at teaching social-emotional skills, music and literacy, Wood said, and she thinks it’s past time to add math and science to that list.

“We miss opportunities (to teach) math,” Wood said, “because we’re just not as strong in mathematics as we are in other areas.”


Filed under: Early Learning, Featured, Kindergarten and Preschool, Reporting & Analysis, STEM · Tags: , , , ,

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  1. Greg Duncan says:

    CarolineSF and Paul both point to a problem that plagues studies such as ours – how do we know it is early math that matters and not something more fundamental like the child’s aptitude or a more advantaged home environment?

    Our study attempted to address that problem by adjusting as best we could for differences in these kinds of factors. In all six studies we were able to adjust for a range of family characteristics such as maternal education, family income and family structure. In all six studies, we adjusted for the child’s reading proficiency and behavior at the beginning of school. And in five of the six studies, we were able to adjust for the child’s IQ measured prior to the beginning of school. The findings reported in EdSource are the predictive power of early math net of the influence of these other things.

    One of the studies provided measures of math and reading achievement and behavior at both the beginning and end of kindergarten. This enabled us to assess whether children who gained the most across kindergarten in terms of math or reading achievement or positive behavior ended up being the most successful in school. Here again the answer was that math mattered the most.

    The best evidence on the importance of early math would come from some kind of preschool experiment that boosted math skills and then follow the children long enough to see if an experimentally-induced math gain was associated with school success. Lacking that, we must rely on careful studies that try to approximate experiments by factoring out the kinds of problems that you mentioned. So far, the results seem to suggest that early math indeed matters the most.

    Greg Duncan

  2. Paul says:

    Shame on you, CarolineSF, for pointing out an unpleasant truth that looms over so many educational intiatives. :-) “Inherent characteristics” is too strong, but I would not hesitate to invoke “aptitude” (neutral: “demonstrated preference”?) or “upbringing” (neutral: “prior exposure”?). I think all children should receive the best math instruction, for example, but I acknowledge that each child is different and that not all will become mathematicians.

    I was thinking recently that a “college-preparatory” preschool would be a lucrative business. Want to join me in founding one? :-)

    In all seriousness, the math program described in the article is excellent, and I’d love to see it replicated. I wonder what would be required, on a system level, to equip preschools with the necessary materials and to train preschool teachers in math. Aggregate salary costs could be extrapolated from the range given in the text. One concern is that most teachers would not share, and would have trouble upholding, the extreme focus mentioned:

    “That’s on purpose, Wood said. A box full of toys is ‘too challenging,’ she said, because it presents materials in a senseless, disorganized way. ‘Children should be able to read the environment and the environment should instruct,’ she said.”

    I share this philosophy, even in my work in the upper elementary and secondary grades. Few others around me agree, and I am always criticized or made fun of for having a minimalist, distraction-free classroom, with small, precisely-targeted sets of materials set out for the day’s activities.

  3. CarolineSF says:

    Doesn’t this confuse correlation with causation?

    “Children who enter kindergarten with an understanding of basic math concepts – like where a number might fall on a number line – were more likely to be succeeding in math and reading by fifth grade, according to a 2007 study by economist Greg Duncan from the University of California, Irvine.”

    To clarify (though I would assume most people here understand this better than I do): Aren’t children who are able to grasp basic math concepts at an early age more likely to succeed academically due to the inherent characteristics that enabled them to grasp basic math concepts at an early age?

  4. el says:

    It sounds like a great program; thank you for writing about it and highlighting it.

    $15,000 a year for preschool. Holy cow. (As far as the application process, I think it’s safe to say that anyone with a connection to Caltech and $15k a year to spend is not an at-risk child. :-) )

    BTW, the preferred spelling is “Caltech.”

  5. sprinke says:

    My son attended the CCC from 20 months until he went to kindergarten. It was a wonderful experience. However, it’s spelled “Caltech” not “CalTech.” Thank you!