Exploring early mathematics through a set of pictures

Preschool classrooms provide a unique environment to embrace early mathematics, as children learn through play. An activity center is often dedicated to early mathematics (puzzles, counters, etc.) but truly all centers offer early mathematics opportunities, as children engage with dramatic play, build with blocks, etc. Transitions also offer a prime time for discussions around mathematics.

If you are on Twitter, you may have crossed tweets from Annie Fetter, Simon Gregg, Jon Orr, or Christopher Danielson using prompts such as “How many?”, “What repeats?” or “What do you notice & What do you wonder?”, with the idea to genuinely engage people in discussing a picture, a book, a task, with counting, patterns, similarities and differences, raise questions, etc., without any expectations of right or wrong answers. I am a big fan of their work, and, as an early childhood educator, fully endorse such approach with young children.

In preK, a picture with similar prompts can be discussed with the whole class, small group or one-on-one, opening the door to nurturing (and surprising!) discussions around early mathematics. The picture can be used as a transition tool, when children are dismissed one at a time–from the carpet to go wash their hands or pick a center, etc. Teachers invite a child to share their thoughts, send the child off, invite another child to share their thoughts, and so on, and come back to the same picture throughout the week to build up from what the children say.

Let’s jump right in with an example.

My cat, like many cats, LOVES boxes. All kind of boxes. Up to a point that over the summer, my children decided to give her some choices — a comfy bed, and boxes of various sizes. We took some pictures to record her habits, and I expect the set of pictures be quite engaging for young children to discuss.

I would start with the first picture below and use a prompt such as “What do you notice?” and “What do you wonder?” (what do you see or what questions do you have? — whatever works best to open up the discussion).

Young children may notice a cat, some boxes. They may talk about the cat (color, fluffy hair, etc), but also the boxes (e.g. size).

Then I would show them to the second picture, using the same prompts — and follow their lead. They will probably notice the cat, again, but this time, in a different spot.

If they are into it, I would show a third picture. The cat is in another box. Children may start wondering…. Why would the cat sleep in another box? Would it fit in the smallest box, on the right? They may count four beds i.e. 3 boxes and 1 cushion, or 3 hard beds and one soft bed, etc

And so on, the goal is for such a first session is to have them talk, and be comfortable sharing their thoughts— there is no right or wrong answer. I picked that set of pictures to start to that if young children are unsure of what to share with the first picture, the second picture should guide them in noticing something different.

I will post a new picture/set of pictures once a week, so that children get used to the activity, and open up. Teachers can record the children’s thoughts on a board. They can also add on questions to extend the children’s thinking or focus on some learning goals of the program / curriculum — can you tell me more about the cat? about the boxes? How are they alike? Different? As long as the discussion remains engaging and build up from the children’s thoughts, the activity can be implemented in various ways, depending on the setting and the audience.

Let me know how it goes : )

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