Category Archives: math activity

How to Get Your Child’s Hands On Math

Numbers can be a pretty abstract concept for a preschooler to wrap her mind around.  But just as a storybook turns abstract letters into a meaningful story, the abstract concepts of numeracy, patterning, and comparison find real meaning in the objects they represent.  Putting these real objects into the small hands of young children makes the abstract concrete as we connect these math terms and concepts with experiences and  understandings they’ve been building over  a lifetime.

I began thinking of some of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children and found that while my thoughts began with formal sets you can buy from an educational supplier, my mind soon drifted to those wonderful home-spun manips that are cheap or even free (some of my favorite words when it comes to describing educational supplies).  And of course with these thoughts buzzing in my brain, I began to notice all the ways to turn everyday experiences into a hands-on math experience.

And so, in those categories, here are a few of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children.

Manips You Can Buy:

Unifix Cubes:  I love these versatile blocks!  They’re great for counting and stacking as a visual representation of numbers.  It’s easy to see that 8 is bigger than 2 when you see the two standing side by side!  They’re perfect for a quick and easy bar graph as well as pattern building and hands-on adding and subtracting.  Plus, if you hand a basket of these to a group of children, they could explore, play, and create freely for quite some time.  That’s always a good sign of a wonderful manip!

Pattern Blocks:  If you really want children to understand shapes, they have to hold them, build with them, make patterns with them, sort them, and compare them.  Pattern blocks fit the bill here, and kids love them!

Cheap or Free:

Largely, the purpose of math manipulatives is to provide a concrete, movable object to represent each part of a number in a one-to-one ratio (one object, count one number).  This gives meaning to numbers and story problems and turns math into an experience instead of just another subject.  You can buy counting bears, but really all you need is an assortment of physical items that can be counted and sorted.  Here are a few items that meet those requirements without a trip to a specialty store:  buttons, dry beans, craft pom poms, plastic lids, coins, bottle caps, beads. 

Invent hands-on games using dice or number cards (I like using spare Phase 10 decks).  Add either one to a board game you already have or create one by simply drawing a path of squares.  Use favorite toys like cars, animal figures, or little people to advance along a counting game you can create together!

 On the Fly:

We’ve all heard the complaint from someone somewhere along the road: Why do I need to know this stuff?  If you really want the children you love and teach to see math as something that they use in the real world, well, then you have to take advantage of opportunities for them to use it in the real world!  Here are a few ways to do just that:

Let them use the scales at the grocery store.  Count apples as you add, read and compare the weight.

Use snacks to sort, count, make patterns, and of course, subtract! 

Make your own counting travel mix.

Find patterns in striped socks, polka-dotted ties, and checked shirts.

Set the table together!  One plate for each person is one-to-one counting in action.

Make collections of treasures to sort, count, and compare.

What are your favorite ways to make math a hands-on experience for the little ones you love and teach?

Top photo by John Evans.

Button photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian.
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Filed under Article, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, supplies

Take a Trip: A Song, A Graph, and Safety Talk

If you’re exploring a transportation theme, here’s a fun little ditty about transportation I found years ago.  (I didn’t write down where I found it, so if you know the original author let me know!)  It’s a fun piggy-back song, to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle:

Take a bus or take a train,

Take a boat or take a plane.

Take a bike or take a car,

May be near or may be far.

Take a rocket to the moon,

Just be sure to come back soon.

This is a fun song that the children enjoy and it gets them thinking about the different types of transportation.  I like to write the words up on chart paper and then have a picture to go with a few of the words.  I’ve attached pictures here.   As I’ve said before, I don’t offer these because I think I’m a talented artist, but because they’re done.  (Sometimes done is better than perfect!)

After getting familiar with the song, I’ll often ask the children about the rhyming words in the song.  Then we’ll talk about other words that might rhyme as well.  On another day I may ask about words that start with the same letter and sound (bike, bus, boat).  As the children become more familiar, I may remove the pictures and have them add them above the corresponding words.  Even if the children aren’t “reading” I think it’s valuable for them to make the connections between the written and spoken words and their meanings.

Now if you want to get more bang for your buck (and who doesn’t?), you can also use this song as a springboard for a math activity.  Use a few of the pictures from the song as the base pictures for a graph.  Use the post-it method or unifix cubes to count out one-to-one how many people in your group have used each type of transportation in the song (or just a few if you’re worried about attention).  If you’re working with just one or two children, have them survey people!  Create a sheet with the pictures and have them record hash marks as their respondents answer about the types of transportation they have used.  They could ask people in your own home, or make some phone calls to friends and family!

Graphing with young children not only teaches them that specific skill, but reinforces one-to-one counting (one object to one number), greater than/less than comparisons, and representational thinking.  If you’re currently working on recognizing written numbers, you could cap off your graph with the written numbers of the totals below the pictures.

And last of all, what would a unit on transportation be without a little talk about safety?  This is another activity I picked up years ago.  Place a ball or a marble inside a cup.  Tell the children that this is them inside a car.  “Drive the car around on the floor (making the requisite car noises, of course), and then make a sudden stop (and yes, you have to say, “Errrrrch”).  Thanks to Newton’s law about objects in motion staying in motion, the ball will roll out of the car.  Talk about what that could mean for them.  If they’re in a car and the car stops, they will keep moving and could fall over or even out of the car. 

Now ask who buckles up when they take a trip in the car.  Give the ball some buckles by taping it in.  Drive the car around again and make some sudden stops.  As Newton would explain, that object in motion has now been interrupted by an equal and opposite force.  The ball stays safely in the cup.  Talk with your little ones about the importance of wearing seatbelts so that they can stay safe in their cars.

Singing, literacy, math, science and safety, all in one unit!  Who says preschool is “just cute”?
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Filed under Building Readers, Fingerplay, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, music and movement activity, science activity

Travel Mix: Math You Can Eat!

 Who doesn’t enjoy a good snack to take on the road?  Here’s a snack activity that fits well in the transportation unit, that not only fills rumbling bellies, but also reinforces math concepts!

First assemble your travel mix snack ingredients.  There are so many ways to go with this!  I usually look for a cereal, salty, sweet, and fruity combination, but this is certainly a flexible recipe!  So I might go with chocolate Chex, pretzel goldfish, Craisins, and Reeses Pieces.  Or maybe some Cheerios, pretzels, Teddy Grahams, almonds, and dry apricots.  Or maybe I’d get rice Chex, pretzel sticks, raisins, marshmallows and peanut butter chips.  You just have to tailor it based on what you have available, dietary considerations, and purpose.  But the great thing is, since they’re making it themselves, you don’t have to worry too much about what everybody likes!

Gather your ingredients and a few bowls or baggies.  Have the children create their own travel mix from the ingredients, leaving out anything they don’t like.  But they don’t just dump in the ingredients willy-nilly.  That’s where the math comes in! 

You can go about this exercise in a variety of ways, depending upon your objectives and the ingredients you’re working with.  You may want to focus on one number, like 12.  Have your children count out 12 of each ingredient to add to their mix.  This gives them plenty of meaningful, yet repetitious practice counting to 12, and gives you an opportunity to observe not just whether or not they can count to 12, but also whether they are rote counting (shoveling M&Ms in as they count out loud) or using 1-to-1 ratio (counting one M&M for each number). 

You could assign measuring scoops to each ingredient and a number card to indicate how many scoops of each item goes into the mix.  This provides for a great discussion of measurement and measurement tools, while also encouraging number recognition and 1-to-1 counting as well.

You could also turn it into a game for your older children.  Using a deck of number cards, each child draws a card and decides which item to count into her mix.  So if she draws a 7 she may choose to count in 7 pretzels.  Play as many rounds as you like, until everyone has a chance to create a full travel mix.  This method gives more practice for number recognition on a wider range, as well as 1-to-1 counting again, and a little greater than less than comparison.  It also gives your child the opportunity to use some logic and planning as they consider which ingredients they want more or less of.  Some children may even discover the principle of addition as they consider that 3 marshmallows followed by 9 marshmallows means they now have 12 marshmallows!

Tailor your method to the developmental level of the children you love and teach.  Whichever way you go about it, building a travel mix is a tasty way to incorporate basic math concepts with real meaning. 

Top photo by darko d.
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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, Snack Time

Will it Float? Simple Graphing for Preschoolers

I really do love graphing with preschoolers.  It makes math concepts like numeracy, 1-to-1 ratio (counting one number for one item), comparing numbers, and sorting objects very visual and hands-on.  Graphing does not have to be complicated.  We’re not talking parabolas here, just simple T charts will do.

Just recently I did a sink or float activity (because no matter how many times we do it, my boys still think that 20 pound pumpkins will sink) and I used the back of the door for our graph.  Just a door and some painter’s tape.  Voila!  A graph! 

Here’s how I organized the activity:

After gathering all the items we would use for our investigation, I drew a quick sketch of each item on an index card.  Before the activity, we talked about each item and made hypotheses as to which would sink or float.

I made a quick T chart with painter’s tape on the back of the door, and labeled each side.  You could easily use the same technique on the wall, the floor, or a table top. 

Next the children took turns pulling a card, finding the corresponding item and tossing it into the bathtub.  (Yes, bathtub.  Where else are you going to float a 20 pound pumpkin?)  After each item we then placed the card on our graph.

Afterward we looked over the graph, counted, made comparisons, and talked about what the floating items had in common.  It was a quick, easy, and fun way to explore science and math together!

How do you use graphing with young children?
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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, science activity, Uncategorized

Gum Drop Adventures

While enjoying some family time at the cabin (the memorable scene I wrote about here) my sister-in-law pulled out a brilliant activity that I thought I would share with you all here!  There were three very simple ingredients, and you don’t have to live near a specialty store to find them: 

  1. Gum Drops
  2. Toothpicks
  3. Imagination

One long table scattered with paper plates full of candies and toothpicks instantly brought 24 kids running to the table to stack, stick, and snack their way through a fun, creative activity!

The activity is wonderfully open-ended so it was enticing and engaging for everyone at the table, ranging in age from 3 to 16!

The kids had a blast creating everything from simple barbells and human figures to complex castles and cathedral-like structures.

They were all on summer vacation so I didn’t ruin the fun by pointing out that they were building fine motor skills, math skills like spatial awareness and geometry, and getting plenty of problem solving and science practice as they questioned and tested their many different attempts at structural integrity.

Simple supplies.  Open-ended exploration.  Tons of learning objectives.  And smiles like this!  Why not give it a try?

Top photo by Silvio Gabriel Spannenberg.

All other photos by the amazing Joan Taylor!
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Filed under Create, fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, science activity

Eric Carle Author Study: The Grouchy Ladybug and The Very Clumsy Click Beetle

The Grouchy LadybugThe Grouchy Ladybug always catches me off-guard, because it seems to be missing the “Very”.  You know, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Lonely Firefly, The Very Busy Spider, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle, and…..The Grouchy Ladybug.  I guess he’s just a little grouchy.

Well, this ladybug, who’s feeling a little bit grouchy, lands on the same aphid-laden leaf as another ladybug, who’s not feeling the least bit grouchy.  One ladybug suggests they share, the other insists they’re all for him (I’m sure you can guess which was which).  The rest of the story follows the grouchy ladybug as he goes from one creature to the next, each bigger than the one before, trying to pick a fight.  He ends up trying to pick a fight with a whale, whose tail smacks him all the way back to that same aphid-laden leaf.  There, the polite ladybug offers again to share, and this time Mr. Grouchy realizes his life is much easier when he tries to get along. 

I can see where some might shy away from this book, as each page includes the dialogue, “Do you want to fight?”  But I think you can really turn that around and talk about how grumpy the ladybug is being, that he’s making poor choices, and that he’s having a bad day because of those choices.  I like to point out how much more cheerful the ladybugs are when they’re sharing with each other.

In addition to highlighting social skills, you can easily use this book to focus on a variety of math skills like size (with the animals in gradually increasing sizes), time, and number recognition.  You can throw in a science discussion as well, as you talk about the relationships between the aphids, the leaf, and the ladybugs.

While there are plenty of directions you could take for your activity, here are two I’ve used.

Counting by 2’s Ladybug Style

Draw a simple ladybug shape and put the same number of black dots on each side.  Make corresponding number cards.  Use the cards as a counting and matching activity, to reinforce counting by twos, or basic addition.  I like to set out the number cards, and then give the children the ladybugs and have them find the right “home” for the ladybug.  By watching how they accomplish this task, I can learn a lot about their math skills.

Number Time


I’ve also made these simple clocks to use as an extension of this story.  (Each page begins with the time, on the hour.)  I used a sturdy Chinet plate, wrote numbers (somewhat unevenly, I now notice) around the edges of the back.  Then, I drew the minute hand, pointing at the 12, and inserted a movable hour hand using a brass brad. 

You can use this quick clock to work on telling time on the hour, but I think the major skill here is simple numeral recognition.  I may give a clock to a child and ask her to show me 3 o’clock.  Or I may do the reverse, showing her the clock and asking for the time.  In either instance, the child is learning about telling time, but she’s also making critical connections between the written and spoken labels for each numeral.

The Very Clumsy Click Beetle (Eric Carle's Very Series)The Very Clumsy Click Beetle tells of a poor soul, trapped on his back, desperately trying to flip back over.  With some coaching from an elder Click Beetle, and  a lot of perseverance, the young whippersnapper finally finds his feet on the ground.

Take the opportunity to talk about patience, practice, and persistance with this story!

After reading, do some movement activities! Naturally, somersaults are at the top of the list!  (Make sure that you have the children attempt the skill one at a time to avoid collisions!)  You could also do an obstacle course with a low balance beam, tunnels for crawling, and a hula hoop as a target for one big, long jump!  Throw in some expressive movements, by challenging the children to move like spiders, butterflies, or grasshoppers.  Activities like these use large motor skills, support physical development, and truly help children make active connections to reading!

Find links to all the Eric Carle activities in this unit.

For more bug-themed ideas, check out this brainstorm! 



Filed under Building Readers, Large Motor Skills, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity

Preschool Math Flower Power

 Here’s a quick one I’m quite sure you can take and improve on!  For your flower theme, create an interactive bulletin board or flannel board activity by creating flower centers with the written numeral and corresponding number of dots.  Then provide flower petals for the children to count out and place around the center, matching the dots in a one-to-one ratio.  This activity supports preschool math skills like numeral recognition, counting, color recognition, and even patterning if they choose to use it that way!

*Update 5-14-10

I told you I was sure you would improve on this!  Check out a twist on this at another site.  Don’t worry if you don’t speak Portuguese; you can click the translate button, or just trust that a picture is worth a thousand words!

For more Seeds & Plants activities, click here.

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