For the next several Mondays, we offer a series of Math storytimes from Ann Hotta, children’s librarian at Berkeley Public Library
ACL Blog: Mathematical Storytime. Part 1
Early math skills are a more powerful predictor of overall school achievement, even stronger than early literacy skills.
I was taken aback at first: What?! Early math skills are more important than reading?! But I’ve since had a chance to mull it over. I feel now that there is value in unpacking this statement and thinking about what it means for us as children’s librarians. I hope you will join me for a series of posts about math in storytime.
I will start today by simply agreeing that early math skills are something that we can help children develop. Whether you think of yourself as a “math person” or not, you most likely already have been incorporating early math activities into your storytimes. Just as the five early literacy skills — singing, talking, reading, writing, and playing – are things we have been doing all along but now try to do with more awareness and intention, so the same can be said of early math skills. Zero to Three has identified seven key early math literacy skills, but let’s focus today on two of these skills, number sense and representation.
Number sense starts out as the ability to count accurately. Have you been incorporating counting rhymes into your storytimes? Congratulations, you are a teacher of early math skills!
But now, with your math awareness up, you notice that many counting rhymes count backwards. Babies and toddlers are still learning how to count forward, so it would make sense to emphasize rhymes that do this in storytimes for younger children. With a bit of ingenuity (and the handy online rhyming dictionary) you can often reverse backward counting rhymes. For example,
Four little stars winking at me
One shot off, then there were three
Three little stars with nothing to do
One shot off, then there were two
Two little stars afraid of the sun
One shot off, then there was one
One little star not having any fun
It shot off, then there were none.[ii]
Can be rewritten:
One little star with nothing to do
Along came another, and then there were two
Two little stars winking at me
Along came another, and then there were three
Three little stars, wanting to soar
Along came another, and then there were four
Four little stars, starting to dive
Along came another, and then there were five
Representation is making mathematical ideas “real” by using words, pictures, symbols, and objects. Do you hold up your fingers while doing counting rhymes? If so, you are representing the numbers 1, 2, 3, and so on with objects, a.k.a. fingers. So what is the big deal? Well, realize that numbers are just ideas. Zero didn’t make it to Western Europe until the 12th century[iii] and people went about their business just fine. A society doesn’t even have to have numbers at all.[iv]
But children in our society do need to learn that numbers are a useful way to keep track of things and it isn’t just instintive. We can help them deeply internalize this idea by representing numbers with objects. I like to use flannelboards for counting rhymes because I can represent numbers with a wide variety of objects, not just fingers. I can represent apples or elephants, or the sun.
If I can, I want to represent nature that children might find in the Bay Area or in California. Once you have gotten used to rewriting rhymes, it’s easy to start writing them yourself. I invite you to use my original rhyme about the gray whale:
1 gray whale in the ocean so blue
Along came another and then there were 2
2 gray whales in the wide open sea
Along came another and then there were 3
3 gray whales in the tide offshore
Along came another and then there were 4
4 gray whales taking a dive
Along came another and then there were 5
And here is my fast, easy, non-artistic way to make flannelboard objects: print out the template that I have included here, cut out each whale, and glue it onto five pieces of felt (they can simply be oval or rectangular-shaped pieces). You can use ordinary Elmer’s glue, but it is even better to use tacky glue, which you can find at craft or hardware stores. That’s it!
In our next blog posts, we will examine the other early math skills: spatial sense, measurement, estimation, patterns, and problem-solving.
[i] “Counting on the Early Years: Promoting Math Learning for Toddlers.” Zero to Three webinar. (2019, December 17). Archived at https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/virtual-event-archives
[ii] Bittinger, G. (2004). 101 Number activities. Grand Rapids: Totline. p.24
[iii] What is the origin of zero? How did we indicate nothingness before zero? (2007, January 16). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-origin-of-zer/.
[iv] Language Without Numbers: Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express ‘One,’ Other Numbers. (2008, July 15). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080714111940.htm.
Visit Jbrary’s playlists for a list of counting rhymes and how to say them.
Here is a set of instructions for making your own flannelboard: https://teachpreschool.org/2011/08/06/diy-flannel-board-for-preschool/. I made my own nicely portable one from a 12×16” canvas panel (like a canvas, but flat and not mounted on a frame) and light blue flannel.
You can find many amazing and beautiful flannelboard objects at Flannel Friday