Heaton, Edwards and Molfese at EduCare of Lincoln
Math Early On

Learning the Language of Nature

The booklet, "Learning the Language of Nature: Young Children as Mathematical Thinkers," tells some of the powerful learning stories that emerged in the Educares of Omaha at Indian Hill and Kellom and the Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory at UNL. In the model of the Hawkins exhibit, and of Italian-style documentation, the stories combine images, description, and teacher interpretation to reveal, unpack, and share moments and processes of early intellectual discovery. Building on strengths and shared perspectives, the university team and Educare leadership have planned every step of the Math Early On project together. The collaborative partnership creates, nurtures, and spreads the ideas and insights emerging within the professional development. Firsthand understanding and engagement with the goals and daily practices of Educare, as well as hopes and dreams of Math Early On, are critical to sustainability. Featured in the News: Researchers share math program processes during Italy visit

Buffett Early Childhood Fund grant targets preschool teachers

Giving early childhood educators tools to foster math learning in 3- and 4-year-olds’ everyday activities is the aim of Math Early On. During the two-year pilot project, UNL researchers have been devising and assessing professional development activities for preschool teachers at three Educare schools in Lincoln and Omaha. More than 700 Nebraska children attend Educare schools, which serve at-risk children from birth to age 5 and their families.

“We want to help teachers better understand the big math concepts that young children should be learning and how these ideas might play out in multiple settings, whether it’s in the classroom or during outdoor play,” said Ruth Heaton, project leader and Gilmartin Professor of Math Education.

Research shows rote counting and memorization don’t help preschoolers develop the higher-level mathematical reasoning skills needed for later academic success. Young children should be learning to recognize patterns and shapes, understand quantity and develop number sense, Heaton said.

Math Early On aims to help teachers become more strategic, observant and reflective. The program consequently encourages educators to present mathematical scenarios that give children opportunities to explore key concepts such as patterns, numerals, measurement and geometry.

“From the earliest age, children show curiosity about the numerical and quantitative aspects of objects and events around them. Research has established that children who enter school excited about math and equipped with a basic foundation are more likely to do well both immediately and in the long run,” said Carolyn Edwards, Willa Cather Professor of Psychology and Child, Youth and Family Studies.

With a $528,071 grant from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Math Early On builds on what UNL researchers learned from Primarily Math. Heaton, Edwards and Tori Molfese, Chancellor’s Professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies (CYFS) began the project with the Educares at Indian Hill and Kellom in Omaha in January 2014, working with 18 staff members. They identified the book Big Ideas of Early Mathematics, developed by scholars at the Erickson Institute in Chicago, as a key resource for the mathematical content for all of the professional development.

Supported by the Buffett Fund, Educare aims to narrow the achievement gap through full-day, year-round educational programs. The university’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute is an Educare Lincoln research partner.

Molfese said one goal is helping educators become more confident in recognizing math learning opportunities in their classrooms.

Researchers will assess teachers’ and students’ beliefs about their math abilities. The team hopes the project becomes a model for the nation’s 21 Educare schools, including Educare Winnebago in northeastern Nebraska, which opened in 2014 as the first to serve an American Indian reservation.

Approximately 24 teachers are participating in the program, which runs through May 2015. As the project winds down, the research team will commence plans to expand Math Early On to the nationwide Educare Learning Network Initiative and explore future opportunities with the Buffett institute.

- Office of Research and Economic Development, CYFS, and Ruth Heaton