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Diversity and Math

by Leslie Layman

posted by Leslie Layman

I think one of the most exciting and hopeful things about working in early childhood is knowing that both young learners and early childhood professionals are some of the most diverse populations in our country. You can literally see the beginnings of a more equitable and integrated future in the making.

While it is an area of great strength in our field, it can also be overwhelming. How will I instruct a classroom with children that speak five different languages? How can I communicate my goals for their child to a family who is just integrating into U.S. culture, let alone our classroom culture? How can I get a child to show me what they know if I can’t understand them or they can’t understand me?

Any challenge with young children requires us to go back to a professional foundation of starting with relationships and identifying strengths. The greatest strength that families bring to us is their investment in the well being and successes of their children. The greatest strength that children bring us is their innate desire to learn and make meaning from the world around them.

I think that early math brings unique opportunities to engage families and children’s interests and skills even when we are not a linguistic or cultural match for them. Families can sort, count, and find patterns within the context of their daily lives. Cultural differences in these activities can become exciting ways for families to be involved in the classroom and to share their knowledge and culture. There is so much math in activities that are also deeply rooted in culture such as cooking, song, daily routines, clothing and more.

One of my favorite examples of this is the tessellation or repeating patterns of the same shape. Made popular in modern culture by M.C. Escher, they also exist in Medieval Islamic tile work and showcase the rich math history of countries such as Turkey, Istanbul, and Iran. Children love tessellations because they are interesting, intuitive, and you can build with them.


Islamic Penrose Tiles in a Tessellated Pattern:

Children can examine tessellations and look for them in the world. They can draw them on their own or make them from pattern blocks on a light table.

A light table can help emphasize the sides of shapes, the way shapes come together, and the space in between.

You can also use the strength of children’s curiosity about the world around them and math concepts to build community and a shared language in your classroom. Much of early math revolves around the importance of constancy and patterns. When you provide a consistent routine for your the children in your care, you are not only building their mathematical skills but also providing exactly the stability that supports children to make sense of the new language and culture of your classroom. Sorting activities can also be very organizing and relaxing for children who are overwhelmed or experiencing something new.

Professional Development students at Harry S Truman College discuss different ways to sort bottle caps. -Photo Credit: Gordon Schrenk

Shared construction projects can be a way to support children to interact and communicate with each other even when they cannot communicate readily through words. Foundational geometric skills are inherent in construction activities: identifying shapes and which ones work well together, angles and distance, measuring and more. It can also be a way to observe how children understand the world around them and to get a picture of a child’s cognitive, social, and physical skills. Open ended construction projects with unique and found materials are challenging for young children and allow them to develop skills around their own interests.


Harry S. Truman Child Development students built a marble run that plays a drum.

I think the most important idea to take away is to not underestimate any child’s capabilities or potential; especially not children whose culture or language differ from your own. Like their curiosity, the diversity that young children and their families bring to us is a special gift. Early Childhood Professional have the opportunity and the charge to nurture that gift and to support children and families to develop a lifelong love for learning through supportive relationships and creative instructional methods.

7 Replies to “Diversity and Math”

    1. Counting and sorting are so important! Especially when they are done in a real world context (like counting out crackers for snack). I hope you find the examples useful.

  1. I didn’t realize how young children can and do understand numbers. I’ve observed young children learning Numbers and I’m still amazed at how easily they pick up on and understand numbers!!!!!

  2. It is very important to teach our young children the importance of learning math. Using patterns is a fun activity children can do.

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