Yes You Can: Meeting the Challenge of Math & Science
- Grades: PreK–K
Two 4-year-olds are in the block area. There are only two double-unit blocks on the shelf and the children know they need four to make a rectangular base for their structure. (Another child has used many blocks in a special building and has requested that it be left up until her dad can see it at pick-up time). As they observe the remaining blocks in the cubby, one child says, "I have an idea." He takes the two remaining doubles and four single blocks from the shelf. He places two single blocks alongside a double and sees that they are of equal length. Both children are excited to see that the two single-unit blocks can be used in place of one double-unit block, and they can build their rectangle after all.
These children have made a math discovery that uses the skills of observation, problem-solving, creative-thinking, geometry, and fractions!
On another day, Amy and Eric are working at each side of the double easel. The paint colors of the day are blue, yellow, and white, and there is a can of plain water for cleaning the brushes. The classroom rule is not to mix paint colors in the cans.
Eric is busy painting a sun on the top of his paper. Next, he plans to make a blue sky around the sun. As Eric leans around the easel to see what Amy is painting, his blue brush hits the yellow sun. Eric is surprised to see that his "sun" has turned green and he shows Amy, who begins to chant, "Eric made a green sun, Eric made a green sun." Eric says, "Look Mrs. Sumner, look what happened to my painting."
Eric and Amy have had a science experience. They have discovered that two colors can combine to make a third color. They have experienced firsthand that yellow and blue make green.
Seizing Teachable Moments
These two anecdotes tell a story: Math and science are everywhere in your classroom! The challenge is to take these wonderful "teachable moments" that happen all the time and intentionally incorporate them into the curriculum. As early childhood teachers, we need to learn to seize these teaching and learning opportunities, and to let children know that you value their discoveries and ideas by sharing them with other children and adults in the classroom. When I was teaching kindergarten, Yigal, an Israeli boy in my class, brought in a retractable measuring tape, which was obviously a treasure for him. We used it at various times during the morning to measure areas of the classroom that he designated, and we wrote a story for the class library, entitled "Yigal's Measuring Story." Yigal's interest in math was validated, all the children became interested, and Yigal gained some much-needed recognition and stature among his classmates.
Sometimes the lessons might be for an individual child or a small group, and other times the moment may turn into a lesson or book that can benefit the entire class!
Math and Science Around the Room
In addition to acting on children's discoveries, there are many ways you can promote math and science skill development in your learning centers. As children engage in the activities, you'll discover that math and science activities enhance all those other skill areas we work so hard to develop in early childhood classrooms, including literacy and language, social/emotional, physical, small- and large-motor, eye-hand coordination, and observation. Let's start by taking a look at how you can integrate math learning into your classroom centers.
The unit blocks that are standard equipment in most early childhood classrooms are a multi-disciplinary curriculum in themselves. Think about the potential of this area for developing math awareness and skills. Through blocks, children gain experience with geometry, shape recognition, fractions, and counting, as well as spatial relations, creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making, which are essential higher-order skills. They are also fun - and enjoyment is an important component of learning.
For a change of pace, try conducting a math lesson right in the block area with small groups of children at a time. Here's what you can do:
- Ask children to sit in a semicircle.
- Place one block of each size in a row on the floor and name all the different block types with children: unit, half unit, double, quad, and wedge.
- Together, describe the shapes of the blocks, for example: rectangle, square, and triangle.
- Pose a challenge or brain teaser: "Can someone tell us one interesting thing he or she notices about the blocks?" If no one volunteers, give children a clue by placing the half-unit on the unit block. Children may notice that:
- Two half-units equal (are the same as) one unit.
- Two units equal one double.
- Four units equal one quad.
- After you have thoroughly explored all the possibilities for combining the blocks on the floor, ask: "Can someone find other blocks in the cubby to match up?" If needed, give an example by putting two half-circles together to make a whole circle.
- Place the semicircle block in front of the children and ask, "Does anyone see something about this block and the way we are sitting?" Help children observe that they are sitting in a semicircle-the same shape as the block only much larger. This comparison will provide children with an early experience in scale, a concept they will learn more about in the upper elementary grades.
- As a final step, create an experience chart to document the lesson.
- Repeat the math lesson with other small groups until everyone has had a chance to participate.
During a math lesson in the block area, children are gaining many other important skills. They are building literacy skills by listening, talking about their discoveries, and using math vocabulary and word recognition, for instance: "This block is a rectangle;" "This one's a triangle", "This one is half as big as that one", "This one is twice as big", "Look, Mrs. Sumner put two halves together and made a whole circle", "This is fun."
As children engage in block-building they learn to organize their play, share materials, negotiate with others, and cooperate with their building partners. So, this one area of the classroom offers opportunities for planned lessons, experiential learning, math and science skill-building, and a host of other interdisciplinary skills.
Dramatic Play Area
As the year progresses, the dramatic-play area might be turned into a food store or a restaurant for a week. Either scenario will provide children with math experiences, including the use and value of money for buying and selling; pricing items for sale and creating price lists or menus; and counting items to buy and sell. Children can use play money of different denominations or make their own money from construction paper. As they engage in this play, children will gain math vocabulary and additional practice in higher-order thinking skills - organizing, decision-making, problem-solving and the essential early childhood skill of cooperative play. Here's how to begin:
- Call a class meeting to talk about the idea of creating a store or restaurant.
- Let the children decide between the two ideas.
- Take a neighborhood field trip to a store or restaurant. If the choice is a restaurant, ask for a menu to take back to school. If the choice is a store, select one that doesn't sell too many items (a bodega or deli).
After the Field Trip:
- Hold a planning meeting to assign jobs.
- Make the play money.
- Set up the restaurant or shop (use play food or pictures of items cut from magazines or drawn by the children).
- Keep the restaurant or shop up for at least one week, or as long as interest lasts. Ask children to help to take the store or restaurant apart.
While the restaurant or store is active, observe and keep notes on children's discussions. You will learn about their ideas concerning the use of money and how the "real world" works. After the activity is complete:
- Call a class meeting to talk with children about the activity.
- Ask children to talk about how it felt to be a customer or a worker.
- Print children's comments on sheets of chart paper.
- Talk about observations that you made, especially about children's use of numbers and money, and about how well they cooperated.
- Relate the activity to how real stores and restaurants work.
Learning about shapes is a standard part of the early childhood curriculum but, too often, we begin and end with children being able to recognize and name the shapes-the square, rectangle, triangle, and circle. Think about taking the study of shapes outside the classroom and into the hallways, the gym, on a walk around the school, and, most fun of all, into the playground or park. Try a playground scavenger hunt to find shapes. To get ready:
- Make a large chart with a set of shapes you have cut from construction paper glued down the left margin.
- Gather enough pieces of stiff cardboard and small clips to make a "clipboard" for each pair of children. Tie a string around a pencil and attach it to the clip.
- Place sets of shape cutouts, drawing paper, and glue sticks on each of the work tables.
The Playground Activity:
- At class meeting time, tell children about going on a "Shapes Scavenger Hunt."
- Divide the class into pairs and ask each pair to sit at a table.
- Ask each pair to glue a row of shapes onto a piece of paper down the left side. (Be sure your sample chart is set up in a place where all the children can see it).
- Attach the shape charts to the cardboard clipboard.
- Explain that every time someone sees a shape on the playground they should put a mark next to that shape with the pencil.
As children hunt for shapes, you may need to clue them in to shapes in different places around the playground, for instance: the frame of the slide might have triangles; the fence might have squares or diamond shapes; and the climbing equipment could be a stack of rectangles. If needed, ask some questions:
- "Does the door to the yard have a shape we know?"
- "How about the steps, are they made of shapes we know?"
- "Has anyone looked at the fence yet?"
Back in the Classroom:
- Ask children to sit at their tables with their clipboards.
- Ask them to count the number of marks they made next to each shape, and write the number on their charts.
- Circulate around the tables to help children count and write the numbers.
- Add up the cumulative numbers for each shape.
- At meeting time (it could be the next day), bring out the large shape chart you made and demonstrate how you tallied up all the shapes children found. For example, next to each construction-paper shape, draw a smaller shape representing each one found by the children. Then, count out loud: "Ricky and Sam found four rectangles. Jake and Jamala found three rectangles. Daniela and Karim also found three, and Kari and Irene found five. All together we found 15."
- Continue tallying for each shape on the chart.
Science is Everywhere!
Important science concepts are continuously being investigated all around the classroom. In the block area, for example, children are learning by trial and error that a wide base creates a stronger building (balance); that if the building is too asymmetrical (symmetry), or if it is too high and narrow, it will fall down; and that they must be aware of themselves and others or they might bump into their own or someone else's building (spatial relations). As children are working on their buildings, you can introduce these terms. They will love the sound of these new "grown-up" words, and will begin to use them as they work together!
Try a small-group "What will happen if...?" lesson in the block area:
- Invite children to sit in a semicircle.
- Ask them a "What will happen if...?" question. For example: "I've been wondering, what will happen if I try to build a tall building with this one unit block on the bottom?"
- Invite children to respond with their ideas and then say, "Let's experiment and see what happens." As you build together, you may want to pause and say, "Should we build it higher? What do you think will happen?"
- Depending on the result of the experiment (most likely the building will collapse), ask children why they think it happened. What was the problem? If the building does collapse, explain that many times scientists have to repeat an experiment, but they learn from their mistakes.
- Ask children if anyone has another "What will happen if... ?" question and continue to experiment.
From time to time, try "What will happen if...?" questions in the block area with other small groups of children. The experimentation will reinforce what they are already learning through trial and error during block play.
Cook Up Some Learning!
If you cook with children, you already are doing math and science in a very "real-world" context. Following recipe charts and measuring ingredients are math activities, and as they stir, beat, and bake children are engaging in chemistry. They also are experiencing the properties of solids and liquids as they watch the batter, which is a liquid, become a solid cookie, cake, or bread.
When doing these cooking activities, let children know that cooking is a form of science, and build science words into the activity. For example, a class story about a cooking experience might say something like:
"Today, we made pancakes for lunch. We measured and mixed water and milk - which are liquids - with eggs and flour. After we stirred everything together, the mixture was like a thick liquid. When the ingredients were cooked, our pancakes turned into solids.
Eric and Amy's discovery in the opening anecdote can be turned into a wonderful color-mixing activity. Of course, color-mixing often happens by chance as children paint or use markers, but it can so easily be turned into an intentional science experience. To prepare:
- Cover the tables with newsprint.
- Put several pieces of drawing paper on each table (one for each child in the group, plus extras).
- On one table, place small containers of red, yellow, and white paints; on another table, put containers of blue, yellow, and white; on a third table, red, blue, and white (repeat the process for each additional table).
- Put a small piece of sponge near each container. Have extra pieces on hand.
- Explain to children that in this activity they will work like scientists, experimenting with mixing different colors of paint.
- Assign children to tables and demonstrate how to dip a sponge lightly into the paint and make a print on the paper.
- Let all the children try the sponge painting, using a different sponge for each color.
- After a bit, if children haven't already done so, ask them to put one color over the other and see what happens.
- Circulate around the tables as children are working and help them notice the color changes.
- Ask some questions to spur their observations, such as, "Did anyone put white paint over the other colors? Please tell us what happened."
After about 15 minutes of experimentation, ask children at each table to talk about their discoveries. Begin by asking one child to name the colors of paint that she worked with, and then ask each child to report on one discovery. There will be repetition as the children report, but that is a way to reaffirm for everyone that blue and yellow create green, red and yellow create orange, red and blue create purple, and white makes the colors lighter. As a finale, you may want to ask: What do you think will happen if we combine all the colors together?
- Let children make guesses (they may know from experience at the easel), and then try it!
- Document the experiment on an experience chart that records each child's contribution.
- Revisit the scientific process with children around this activity.
Oodles of Oobleck
Many teachers regularly make play dough for, or with, children. This simple mixture of flour, water, and salt provides much fun, experimentation, and imaginative play. Oobleck is a wonderful variation of play dough, and provides engaging experiences with solids and liquids, since it has the properties of both. The added value of Oobleck is that it is an excellent medium for introducing the scientific process. And, because it reverts quickly to a smooth powder (once the water dries up), it appeals to children who are reluctant to touch "yucky" substances.
Oobleck consists of two parts cornstarch to one part water, with a few drops of food coloring added (optional). The water should be added to the cornstarch slowly and stirred with a popsicle stick. (You may need to add a drop or two of extra water or a sprinkle of extra cornstarch to get the right consistency.) For the whole class, two cups of cornstarch and one cup of water (to which food coloring has been added) will be enough. It's best to make it in an aluminum cake pan or a plastic deli container. The Oobleck is ready when it resists a hard smack, but a finger gently pushing against it goes right in. Once the Oobleck is made, you can:
- Gather a small group of children around the table in the art area, which has been covered with newsprint or a plastic cloth and say, "Today, we're going to do a science experiment with something new."
- Mix the Oobleck in front of the children or have a batch ready in advance.
- Give each child a small lump of Oobleck for experimentation.
- Let them make it into a ball and watch it melt through their fingers like a liquid (remind children that it's both a liquid and a solid).
- While children are playing, ask: "Does anyone want to guess what this stuff is?" "What do you observe about Oobleck?" "Can you make it into a ball?" "Then what happens?"
- Suggest putting one finger into the Oobleck. Ask what children notice when they do that.
- Try putting a penny or other small object into the Oobleck. What happens? (The object sinks out of sight.)
- When children have finished experimenting, print their discoveries on the chart paper.
- Let children know that they have been working like scientists using a special process. Make a scientific process chart for the classroom that includes the following:
- First we Wondered - What is this gooey stuff?
- Then we Predicted - Guessed it might be flour or goo
- Then we Tried it - Experimented
- Then we Found Out - We used our senses
- Then we Talked About It - Documented our discoveries
As a follow-up activity, children can make their own Oobleck. You will need a deli container for each child, popsicle sticks for stirring, scoops, small pitchers of water with the food coloring added (two to three drops is all you need). The formula is the same, two parts cornstarch to one part water, with adjustments as needed.
At story time, read Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss. The book is quite long, so you can plan to read it in parts.
As a follow-up to the color-mixing activity, read Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. It's a wonderful story about color-mixing and other important things!
As an early childhood teacher, you're familiar with creating a curriculum that excites young children and stimulates learning. You already do many activities that are inherently about math and science. However, it's important to label these activities as math and science experiences - for yourself and for the children in your classroom. Affirm children's discoveries as math or science, and, whenever possible, turn their discoveries into lessons for everyone. It is so important to create an attitude in children that says, "Math and science, I like them - and I can do them!"