The Math of Any Picture Books - Play Discover Learn 24/7

The Math of Any Picture Books

We all love a good math picture book, but sometimes, a kid prefers Thomas the train, Froggy or Pete the Cat.  But no worries, you can talk math with any picture book. 

How can you make any picture book about math?   As part of my series on cultivating original math composition work, I am going to show you five ways I make any picture book about math.

Make Picture Books Hands-On  

The key to is to give children a hands-on manipulative.  My preference is Cuisenaire rods as they make it easy and fun to engage in math discussions.

Picture books already provide a multi-sensory experience without a manipulative. A manipulative adds that additional layer that makes the math more tangible for the child.

It also calls the child to participate in the story beyond their mind. Today, I give you five simple activities that help the child engage in the math of the story using Cuisenaire rods.  

However, I am sure that you could use a variety of math manipulatives but I highly encourage finding one manipulative and sticking to it most days. Consistency helps children navigate the language of math better which heightens their perception.  

Changing the manipulative changes the context which makes it harder for the child to relate a current experience to previous experiences.   I think some would argue that changing the manipulative improves flexible thinking.  I think that overburdens the child.

That flexibility comes in time without changing the manipulative everyday.  I think we should be focused on making it easier to relate previous experiences to current experiences by the use of one manipulative consistently. 

Picture Book Counts

Sometimes, it is as easy as counting. How many characters did we meet in this story?  Can you show me with rods?  Can you help me keep count with the rods?

You can focus on just one page or you can keep count as you read or reread the story just to count.  

Beyond just counting, notice the composition of how items are grouped. Maybe you are counting the candy in a Christmas story or you are counting the toys scattered on the floor.  Take note of how three items are grouped here and five items grouped here.

What is that total?  What rods would you use?  Why?  

Don't forget the "why." The most vital part is engaging and connecting with your child's thinking at math time. 

Size it Up

Every picture book offers opportunity to measure.   What is the height of Papa Bear?  Mama Bear?  Baby Bear?  Let’s measure with the rods.

Each page offers comparison.  Which character is taller?  How can we be certain?  Should we measure?  Which rod should we use to measure?  How much taller is this character?  Why do you think that? 

Shape it Up

Rods are limited in their ability to convey shapes, but what shapes they do convey can add lots of opportunity to find and discuss math using picture books.

We have squares, rectangles, and staircases.   Squares and rectangles open the door for comparison.   How do we know this is a square?  Can we use rods?    How many red squares can fit into this building?   Can we make a blue rectangle as big as this box the cat is hiding in?

Any kind of book that is about ascending or descending has opportunity to build and wonder about staircases.  Staircases offer opportunity to discuss and observe addition, subtraction, ordinal numbers, multiplication, division and fractions.

For more about the math opportunities that lie in staircases, check out this post.  

Recreate a Favorite Scene

This goes back to my Wordless Math art post.  Have the child recreate their favorite scene with your favorite manipulative.  We love Cuisenaire rods because it easy to transition into a math talk, but it isn't the only way.  

Once the child is finished, snap a picture and print it out for a whole month of discussions.  For great questions to ask, check out that post on wordless math art.

Improving Math Picture books

You can improve any math picture book by taking it from passive to active participation.  By giving children rods to manipulate to discuss and consider the math on pages in a math picture book, the math becomes more tangible and interesting. 

It is no longer ideas to manipulate in their minds.  Instead, the math becomes something playful and easier to ponder.  Consider, Greg Tang’s math books.  

Grapes of Math is filled with stories set up to approach the idea of adding numbers quickly and easily.  When we pulled out the rods to consider each page, it became more apparent what would be the best strategy for adding quickly.   Such active participation in math books can help to force their awareness in a way that doesn’t seem forceful but playful and easy.

Kids can get messy and see which way is better.  They have opportunity to discuss and justify their decisions.  This is an important part to developing reasoning skills which are vital to problem solving.  You can see our journey through Greg Tang's books with Cuisenaire rods here

Relax and Learn with Picture Books

There is nothing like checking off literacy and numeracy development in one big swoop.  I love double-duty and this continues the series in cultivating original math composition.   If you want more ideas for picture books with engaging math activities, check out my free course, 12 weeks of Early Math Discovery with free printables

Lacy | Play Discover Learn 24/7

Knowing the best kind of learning comes from a highly motivated internal drive, Lacy Coker cultivates tools and resources that help to make learning for young children playful and self-directed.

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