What Is Emergent Mathematics?
Emergent mathematics is a term we will use to describe how children construct mathematics from birth and continuing throughout the life of the person through a combination of cognitive development and interaction with their environment. The principle is similar to the concept of emergent literacy, which has become the standard for teaching children to read and write in early childhood classrooms. Both emergent mathematics and emergent literacy suggest that, young children, whether they are 6 weeks, 6 months, or 6 years old need to be immersed in mathematics and literacy from the day they are born, through interactions with parents or caregivers.
Educators and researchers are beginning to look at the construction of mathematical concepts the same way that we understand literacy development—as emergent. The idea that literacy learning begins the day that children are born is widely accepted. Noam Chomsky has discovered strong evidence for an innate “language acquisition device” that provides humans with a framework for learning language (Chomsky, 2006; Chomsky, Belletti, Rizzi, & Chomsky, 2002). The internal structure of this “device” allows children to interact with language at a very early age without being directly taught the rules of grammar and syntax (Otto, 2002). Reading to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers is known to be an early predictor of positive literacy because it immerse children in language and gives them an opportunity to interact with it (Feiler & Webster, 1997; Kamii, Manning, & Manning, 1991; Lally et al., 2001; Pickett, 1998).
Mathematical understanding can be viewed in a very similar way. During the first few months of life, children begin to construct the foundations for future mathematical concepts as they interact mentally, physically, and socially with their environment and with others. Even before a child can add or count, he must construct ideas about mathematics that cannot be directly taught. Just as emergent readers learn that letters in the alphabet correspond to spoken sounds the understanding that numbers have a quantity attached to them is actually a complex relationship that children must construct (Xu, Spelke, & Goddard, 2005). There is evidence for a “mathematics acquisition device” (MAD) that provides a framework for mathematical concepts similar in function to the “language acquisition device” (Sinclair, Kamii, & University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1994; Sinclair & Kamii, 1995). This MAD allows children to:
- Naturally acquire some mathematical concepts even without direct teaching;
- Follow a generally standard sequence of gradual development;
- Construct mathematical concepts from a very early age.
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