Four Ways to Use Tablets to Foster Early Math Learning
Editor's Note: Technology in early childhood spurs many questions. This blog describes how to effectively use digital tools to foster young children’s learning in a key content area. To explore more about what is developmentally appropriate technology practice, check out the latest issue of Teaching Young Children. It’s packed with practical and research-based examples and recommendations for preschool educators navigating decisions about technology and media.
Digital tools have the potential to help foster learning in mathematics, particularly if that content is appropriately challenging. They can help young learners begin to embrace and understand skills such as data collection and analysis, equipartitioning (dividing equally), and subitizing (quickly “seeing” a number of objects without counting). Here, we describe four ways to use tablets in developmentally appropriate ways to foster preschoolers’ early math learning.
Use Tablet Features
One of the simplest ways to use a tablet to encourage early math learning is to use the features that come with it, such as the photo and video app. Teachers can help their preschoolers take photos of the world around them, then turn those photos into opportunities to learn about math:
- Take a photo of the block corner, then count how many blocks are in the picture.
- Create a class body graph, where children stand as data points in a grid on the floor. Take a photo to show children how they created a type of bar graph.
- Take photos of patterns and shapes to engage in games. Ask children to find patterns or shapes around the classroom that are similar to those in the photos.
Teachers can use the video feature on the tablet to record children engaging in math activities, such as measuring the room to see how wide it is when children stand with outstretched arms. How many children are needed if their arms are by their sides? Teachers can show children the video and ask them to describe what they see. They can also use the video’s slow-motion or time-lapse feature to create videos to help children closely examine things that happen quickly—like objects rolling down a ramp.
Selectively Employ Games
Apps are a popular way to use tablets to foster learning and to inspire children to apply specific mathematical skills. Yet to use digital games effectively, teachers must be selective and link a game’s content to what children are learning in the non-digital context. Apps and digital games can enhance teaching and learning when teachers intentionally integrate them with their activity plans and learning goals rather than use them as an unrelated add-on that doesn’t tie into the curriculum or overall learning objectives.
To support integration with existing learning, digital games can be paired with books, puzzles, board games, or art activities to provide multimodal experiences. Try setting up a digital learning center and encourage children to visit it to play games for short periods of time (such as 10 to 15 minutes) each day. To best support learning, have children use touchscreen tablets in pairs or small groups.
Learning with digital apps can be a social experience. Any digital game chosen for the classroom should encourage coviewing and co-playing. When selecting apps, look for games that invite sharing, collaborating, and discussing—like the free suite of Early Math with Gracie and Friends apps. This suite offers children meaningful opportunities to practice and gain mathematics skills while engaging in learning as a social endeavor:
- The Jungle Gym game provides a simple way to practice counting and learn-to-play tablet games.
- Birthday Café, City Skates, Breakfast Time, Park Play, and Lemonade Stand all offer scaffolding to assist children as the levels get harder.
- Treasure Bubbles and Photo Friends are designed for two players at the same time, such as a child and a teacher or two children.
Leverage Digital Tools for Teacher Use
When using tablets to develop early math learning, teachers should use apps that let them manage the experience and modulate the complexity of tasks based on their children’s strengths, needs, and interests. For example, in our roles as researchers at Education Development Center, we have created a digital app that can be used on any tablet to create visual data representations and graphs in engaging ways. This data collection and analysis tool supports collaboration between preschool teachers and children to collect data, create simple graphs, use graphs to engage children in discussions, and answer real-world questions more easily. As the teacher holds and operates the app, it scaffolds the data collection and graphing process. This means they can spend time talking about their questions and analyzing the data collected rather than creating graphs.
Connect to Content Areas
Digital tools have more power when intentionally integrated into the curriculum and connected to multiple content areas. For example, the data collection and analysis app we created uses storybooks to launch investigations that are meaningful to children. It also connects to literacy and science content while supporting children’s social and emotional development.
Teachers can incorporate digital tools across their curriculum in several ways:
- Support language and literacy by using e-books or by documenting children’s work and asking them to describe their learning process. Create a class book for children to share with their families.
- Use live-streamed videos of animals in different habitats—such as from zoos, aquariums, or wildlife cams—to build on children’s interests and answer questions.
- Access information that is hard to see in real time, such as a seed sprouting or shadows moving, to enhance investigations of living things and light and shadow. Apps like the one we created encourage science learning by scaffolding the process of conducting an investigation to answer a research question, such as how do animals move?
- When viewing graphs and other mathematical information, help children develop language and reasoning skills by talking about data. (Which graph has more? Which has less? Which has an equal number of units?)
- Connect to children’s families by taking pictures and recording messages from children about what they experienced in school. Similarly, ask families to help children connect home to school by sharing similar messages and digital pictures from home. This can be done during morning meeting time.
- Tap into children’s social and emotional development. For instance, our app asks children to identify and report how they feel at different times of the day and when they strike a “silly pose.” Activities such as these give children an opportunity to identify emotions and think about what affects those emotions.
Digital tools have the potential to be an asset in preschool settings if they are intentionally incorporated into the curriculum. This can be achieved by using specific features of the digital tablet itself, by integrating interactive games and apps into learning experiences, by finding and employing digital tools that support learning goals, and by connecting the digital experience across content areas.
Jessica Mercer Young is a developmental psychologist and Principal Research Scientist at the Education Development Center. A former preschool teacher, Dr. Young is dedicated to providing equitable learning opportunities for all children, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in STEM.
Ashley Lewis Presser is a research scientist at Education Development Center’s Center for Children & Technology. She investigates effective processes for improving STEM learning—particularly for young children—and uses that information in the design of educational interventions.