8.8 Applications to Early Education

Understanding how children think and learn has proven useful for improving education. Activities like playing games that involve working with numbers and spatial relationships can give young children a developmental advantage over peers who have less exposure to the same concepts.

8.8.1 Mathematics

Even before they enter kindergarten, the mathematical knowledge of children from low-income backgrounds lags far behind that of children from more affluent backgrounds. Ramani and Siegler (2008) hypothesized that this difference is due to the children in middle- and upper-income families engaging more frequently in numerical activities, for example playing numerical board games such as Chutes and Ladders. Chutes and Ladders is a game with a number in each square; children start at the number one and spin a spinner or throw a dice to determine how far to move their token. Playing this game seemed likely to teach children about numbers, because in it, larger numbers are associated with greater values on a variety of dimensions. In particular, the higher the number that a child’s token reaches, the greater the distance the token will have traveled from the starting point, the greater the number of physical movements the child will have made in moving the token from one square to another, the greater the number of number-words the child will have said and heard, and the more time will have passed since the beginning of the game. These spatial, kinesthetic, verbal, and time-based cues provide a broad-based, multisensory foundation for knowledge of numerical magnitudes (the sizes of numbers), a type of knowledge that is closely related to mathematics achievement test scores (Booth & Siegler, 2006).

Playing this numerical board game for roughly 1 hour, distributed over a 2-week period, improved low-income children’s knowledge of numerical magnitudes, ability to read printed numbers, and skill at learning novel arithmetic problems. The gains lasted for months after the game-playing experience (Ramani & Siegler, 2008; Siegler & Ramani, 2009). An advantage of this type of educational intervention is that it has minimal if any cost—a parent could just draw a game on a piece of paper.

8.8.2 Reading

Cognitive developmental research has shown that phonemic awareness—that is, awareness of the component sounds within words—is a crucial skill in learning to read. To measure awareness of the component sounds within words, researchers ask children to decide whether two words rhyme, to decide whether the words start with the same sound, to identify the component sounds within words, and to indicate what would be left if a given sound were removed from a word. Kindergartners’ performance on these tasks is the strongest predictor of reading achievement in third and fourth grade, even stronger than IQ or social class background (Nation, 2008). Moreover, teaching these skills to randomly chosen 4- and 5-year-olds results in their being better readers years later (National Reading Panel, 2000).

8.8.3 Continuing Brain Maturation

Understanding of cognitive development is advancing on many different fronts. One exciting area is linking changes in brain activity to changes in children’s thinking (Nelson et al., 2006). Although many people believe that brain maturation is something that occurs before birth, the brain actually continues to change in large ways for many years thereafter. For example, a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the brain and is particularly involved with planning and flexible problem solving, continues to develop throughout adolescence (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). Such new research domains, as well as enduring issues such as nature and nurture, continuity and discontinuity, and how to apply cognitive development research to education, insure that cognitive development will continue to be an exciting area of research in the coming years.325

  1. Children’s Development by Ana R. Leon is licensed under CC BY 4.0↩︎