Using Children’s Books to Build Math Skills
Posted on October 24, 2023 by CHS
Books can be a useful tool for starting conversations about math, introducing new math concepts, and practicing math skills. Reading books with children builds their math skills, and it also builds their language skills by introducing vocabulary about math. When children are able to have a conversation about what they are learning, they can mentally organize information and reflect on it. Children also learn through play. When parents and educators connect books with children’s play, it provides them with the opportunity to explore, experiment, practice, and eventually master math skills.
Any children’s book can support children in developing math skills. You can use a picture book or a book with words. The important thing is to choose books that are of interest to children. If the topic is interesting to them, children will be more likely to listen to the story and actively participate. As you read, look for opportunities to pause and practice math skills. For example, if there are multiple objects on a page, such as several stars, cars, or ladybugs, you can say, “I see a lot of stars. How many do you think there are?” You can find more tips for choosing children’s books in our blog Choosing Books and Reading Aloud with Children
Practicing Classification, Ordering, and Sequencing
Teaching children about the parts of a book and the physical characteristics of a book can build classification and ordering skills. Children can classify and order books by size, shape, thickness, weight, subject, or even copyright date. This builds their understanding of similarities and differences. Books can also be used to teach children about the sequence or order of events. Once children are familiar with stories like The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, try reading them backwards. In The Napping House, the last page says, “In the napping house where no one now is sleeping.” To engage children in thinking of the sequence of events in reverse, show them the last page and ask, “What happened before everyone woke up?” or “Why is everyone awake?” Author Laura Numeroff has several similar books such as, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, and If You Give a Dog a Doughnut.
Understanding The Concept of Time
Understanding time is also a math concept that can be explored with books. If children have done, or are planning to do, an activity that is featured in a book, you can use the book to invite them to reflect on the past or future. In the book Apple Countdown by Joan Holub, children visit an apple farm. The book invites opportunities to count as children prepare for the field trip, travel to the farm, and pick apples. Reflect on the past by inviting children to recall what they did on an apple-picking field trip, or a time when they ate apples. For example, “How many apples did you pick on our trip?” or “How many apple slices did you eat for snack?” Use the book to reflect on the future by asking, “How many apples do you think you will pick at the apple farm?” or “When we try apples today, how many different types of apples will you try?” A couple of books that explore the concept of time are Tree: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup and It's About Time! by Stuart J. Murphy.\
Combining Books with Activities (Counting, Arithmetic, Colors, and Shapes)
You can also choose children’s books that are specifically written to explore math concepts, and then offer children play experiences that go with those books. For example, the book On the Launch Pad: A Counting Book About Rockets by Micheal Dahl introduces counting numbers (cardinal numbers), identifying numbers (the symbol: 1, 2, 3, 4), and identifying numerals (the words that describe the symbol: one, two, three, four). On each page, there are items to count, starting with the number twelve and going down to one. This is how astronauts count down to launch a rocket.
At the end of the book are some facts about rockets and space, as well as some activity ideas to do with children. A play experience that could go with this book might include children building their own rocket with recycled boxes and cardboard tubes, decorating it, and pretending to launch it. While they are building their rocket, adults can draw attention to things they can count, and of course there is the launch countdown. This experience offers children the opportunity to explore counting and identifying numbers and numerals.
You can also make math games based on books. In the story Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell, a family goes grocery shopping for dinner ingredients and they count items as they shop. You can make a game for this with a spinner or dice, some pictures of different food items glued on index cards, and a tote bag or basket. Children can flick the spinner or roll dice and then count out grocery items to put in their grocery bag. The book Eating Fractions by Bruce McMillan can be combined with a simple puzzle to offer children hands-on experience in understanding the concepts of whole (1), half (1/2), third (1/3), and fourth (1/4).
You will need to glue a picture of each food item onto cardboard or sturdy paper. Then, cut the picture into four pieces. The foods featured are a banana, muffin, pizza, ear of corn, pear, and strawberry pie. As children read, they can practice putting the four banana pictures together to make one whole banana, and then break it apart into halves (two pieces), thirds (three pieces), and fourths (four pieces). This book introduces complex math vocabulary such as whole, fractions, divide, thirds, fourths, numerator (top number in the fraction), and denominator (bottom number in the fraction).
Another math concept that can be practiced with books is identifying primary and secondary colors. In the book Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh, children see that mixing the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow can create the secondary colors of purple, orange, and green. An activity to practice this concept would be to place some water in three sections of an ice tray. Place a drop of red, blue, and yellow food coloring into each section. Children can use a plastic eye dropper or small spoon to transfer and mix colors in the empty sections of the ice tray. Mouse Shapes is another book by Ellen Stoll Walsh, and it introduces children to the math concept of identifying and manipulating shapes. Activities that can be done with this book include building with blocks, hiding pictures of shapes around the room and inviting children to find specific shapes, or playing with tangram puzzles.
Your public library can be a valuable resource for helping you select books or develop activities that are based on books. Below you will find book lists and additional online resources and tools for using books to build children’s understanding of math concepts.
References and Resources
- 40 Children’s Books That Foster a Love of Math by Colleen Uscianowski Maas and Herbert Ginsburg, published by Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME)
- Approaching Math Through Story by Julie Comay, published by The Robertson Program
- Choosing Books and Reading Aloud with Children by CHS (Spanish)
- Choosing Books You Can Count On by Pat Dickinson, published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
- Developing Math Games Based on Children’s Literature by Kay M. Cutler, Deanna Gilkerson, Sue Parrott, and Mary Teresa Bowne, published by NAEYC
- Fun, Easy Ways to Play with Math at Home by Jessica Mercer Young and Kristen E. Reed, published by NAEYC (Spanish)
- Glossary of Math Terms compiled by Heather S. Benson, published by NAEYC
- Math Activities Inspired by Popular Children’s Books by Fun Learning for Kids
- Math Development Chart by Sesame Street (Spanish)
- Math in the Early Years: A Strong Predictor for Later School Success by the Education Commission of the States (ECS)
- More, All Gone, Empty Full: Math Talk Every Day in Every Way by Jan Greenberg, published by NAEYC
- Parts of a Book: Preschool Version (music video) by Jack Hartman
- Practicing Math Skills with Your Child by CHS (Spanish)
- Printable Tangram Puzzles by Super Teacher Worksheets
- Read Alouds on YouTube: Approaching Math through Story (includes videos) by the Robertson Program
- Using Stories to Support Mathematical Thinking in Young Students by Kathleen Crawford-McKinney and Asli Özgün-Koca, published by Edutopia