Friday, May 22, 2020

Incorporating Math Literacy Into Storytime and Other Programs

Math storytime, math concepts in storytime, math picture books for preschoolers, math activities for toddlers and preschoolers

Incorporating math and science into storytime is something I've always tried to do, especially when I was in outreach, but I've realized it's not something everyone thinks of, or knows how to do. Or maybe you are doing some of these things anyway, and just hadn't really connected them to math or science. After seeing an article with a list of children's books to encourage an interest in math, I've been thinking more about ways to incorporate math and encourage a positive attitude about math, and trying to be more purposeful in incorporating math into storytime and other programs.

Now if you're thinking "oh, great, something else I have to worry about doing in storytime...", I get it! First storytime was just about reading stories, then it was about early literacy skills, then we had to add parent education and passing along development and early literacy information, and now we're talking about adding math! 

It is challenging to try to include so many different elements in 20-minute storytime, but some of these you are likely already doing anyway, and others are easy to incorporate. Plus, I'm a big believer in starting small, and that you don't have to do ALL the things every time. So try them every now and then, and as you get more familiar and comfortable with them, look for ways to incorporate them more often.

First, I'll start with some of the more obvious and work to some that are less obvious:

  • Counting Books - There are lots of counting books, some better and more interesting than others. Keep the age of the audience in mind. For babies and toddlers, counting up from 1 to 5 or 10 is enough, but for older kids, look for books that count up to 20, and for books that count down. One that comes to mind I really like for older kids is Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3 by Bill Martin, Jr., Michael Sampson, and Lois Ehlert. This introduces "skip counting", or counting by ten's up to 100. Also keep an eye out for books that have an actual story, as opposed to just counting, like Ellen Stoll Walsh's Mouse Count.

  • Counting Songs & Rhymes - Again, for preschool and up, be sure to include rhymes and songs than count down as well as up, and try to use more that go up to/down from 10 and not just all the "Five Little..." somethings (though those are still good, too). Whenever I do the "Ten Little..." something song, I always do a second verse counting back down from 10 to 1 (this is also good for fine motor skills, as is repeating the "Five Little" somethings using the non-dominant hand).

  • Shapes - The obvious connection here is geometry, which is true, but any type of activity that involves categorizing and classifying things involves mathematical thinking and is a pre-science skill as well. There are not a lot of great shape books, but two that I have used a lot are Shape By Shape by Suse McDonald (even though she got the Brachiosaurus' teeth completely wrong) for younger kids and Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham for older kids. Tangled: A Story About Shapes by Anne Miranda and Eric Comstock is a newer book that looks promising.

    Aside from books and simple shape identification activities, other activities that could be incorporated during storytime or as part of a craft or playtime afterward are flannel boards with all different felt shapes kids can play with and put together, crafts using cut-out shapes to make collage pictures or tangrams, magnet board shapes, good old-fashioned wooden building blocks that come in different shapes, and various shape-sorter toys. Encourage parents to point out shapes in real life, like signs, windows, doors, wheels, etc. There are several books that involve identifying shapes in the environment, but City Shapes by Diana Murray is particularly nice, and Bryan Collier's illustrations are lovely.

  • Introduce Addition & Subtraction Concepts - An example that we frequently use are the counting up and down rhymes with the "Five Little" somethings, where we add or take away things one at a time. Look for stories that have this element as well, and reinforce it. Essentially, all the counting up stories and rhymes are doing addition, and the counting down ones are using subtraction; we just have to be intentional about pointing it out and describing it using those terms.

  • Introduce Addition & Subtraction Equations - For preschoolers and up, occasionally show them the written equation and talk them through what the symbols mean and how it represents the situation just described. Two books that are great for this are Little Quack by Lauren Thompson and Derek Anderson, which counts up from 0 to 5 and showing the addition equations, and Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and James Dean, which counts down from four to zero as Pete loses each button and shows the subtraction equations.

  • Sorting & Matching - There are any number of items you can provide to have children sort and/or match by color, size, shape, or any other characteristics. This can be done with flannel or magnetic boards or with physical objects. A favorite activity of one of my volunteers was leaf-sorting using foam leaf cutouts that could be sorted by color, shape, or whether they were sparkly. This Attribute Apple set is great, too; it has apples in three sizes and colors, some with leaves, and some with worms, so there are many different criteria by which to sort them. This is also a great pre-science activity, and using a pincer grasp to sort small objects makes it a pre-writing activity as well!

  • Patterns - Just like sorting, you can using various characteristics and activities to explore patterns using flannel pieces, blocks, beads on a string, and more. Seeing patterns is an important skill in mathematical thinking (think statistics, coding, data analysis, etc.). And again, manipulating small objects with a pincer grasp, as with stringing beads, is also great for writing.

  • Spatial Relationships - Think directional terms and prepositions! Up, down, on the table, in the basket, over the rainbow, beside the chair, under the blanket, over there, etc. Use these to be descriptive, and ask questions that will elicit similar descriptive terms from the children. Also relative size and position, such as bigger than, smaller than, higher, lower, farther, nearer; big, bigger, and biggest, etc. I bet you already do this without realizing it relates to math as well as expressive language! The Berenstain Bears' Inside Outside Upside Down and Jez Alborough's Tall come to mind.

    And of course for a hands-on activity, it's hard to beat building with blocks for spatial relationships, but a treasure hunt where they have to follow directional instructions as well as relative descriptions and counting is a really fun way to incorporate several math skills.

  • Measurement - Have kids measure and estimate things - quantity, length, height, weight, volume. One activity I have used, since we are in the middle of horse country, is tape a row of handprint cutouts up the wall and have the kids guess how many hands high they would be, then measure and see. This is a great science activity as well.

  • Graphing - This activity is probably best for ages 5 and up, who have started to develop a greater sense of symbolic/representational thinking. This is simple to add onto any of the sorting or counting activities you do by just drawing a simple bar graph to represent your totals, and explaining how each unit of the bar represents 1 whatever you are counting.

Again, don't feel pressured to incorporate math into every single storytime, but just try to be a little more mindful and intentional with some of the activities when you can. Some are a little easier to do than others, and it does depend on the age of the kids. And if you aren't able to fit it into storytime as much as you'd like, then try to sneak it into other programs.

And to help, here are some links to various lists of books that relate to math in a positive way, and most are nicely categorized:

If you have any suggestions for books or activities, or know other helpful resources, please share them in the comments! 

(And remember, regardless of your own personal feelings or possible struggles with math, please be careful to refrain from expressing any negative attitudes about math around children!)

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  1. I love incorporating early math into storytime! I blog about it under the tag early math at Storytime in the Stacks. I think one of the easiest ways to incorporate more math talk into storytime is by adapting flannels - so many opportunities to count, compare and contrast!

    Two years ago I presented with my fabulous teammate about incorporating early math into storytimes and programs at CLEL. Our presentation "Balancing the Scale: Weighing Early Math and Early Literacy" and resources can be found here. One of my favorite resources from our list is the Let's Talk About Math project from Zero to Three and Too Small to Fail. So many great ideas for caregivers and math messages!

    As evidenced by how many people have been failing to interpret simple curves and mathematical models lately, I think early math is more timely and important than ever! So good to see more librarians blogging about it. Thanks for sharing Jen!


    1. So glad to see someone else incorporating math concepts! Having starting out as a science teacher and researcher, I try to include math and science concepts and thinking as much as possible. As you say, recent events have clearly evidenced how many people do not understand basic biology and cannot correctly interpret graphs and data. I love that you gave a presentation on this; I wish we had some good conferences in my area. I see so many strong state organizations with great conferences in other states, but ours is pretty anemic :(