Math Isn't Just Numbers

Hedda SharapanI heard a teacher offer a reassuring note – and a math lesson -- when she told a three-year-old that it was time for her group to go to the bathroom. She said that she’d put the stuffed animal the child was holding “up high on the shelf so no one would get it.”

The teacher told me no one would go to the bathroom if she didn’t do that! That was her reassurance, but did you also hear the math lesson? It was in her words, “…up high...” Those are some of the everyday words in the category of spatial relations, one of the Common Core Math Standards in early childhood.

While we usually think of math as numbers, spatial relations is about words…words like over, under, through, heavy, far, near, up, down, inside, outside, next to, in front of, etc.

An easy way to understand spatial relations is to think of words that help us know where something is in space, in relation to other things. These words tell us about the position or distance or movement of things, so they’re especially useful for all kinds of STEAM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math).

Here are some ways we can help children learn about spatial relations:

With words

There are lots of opportunities to use spatial relations words all through the day. On the playground you might call out to a child, “Down the slide you go.” When you write a child’s name on a drawing, you might say, “I’ll write it at the bottom of the page,” or at clean-up time, suggest “Let’s put all the pieces inside this box.”

Even toddlers learn from these math words. I watched a two-year-old struggle as she tried to carry a big block, and I heard her teacher say “That looks heavy.” The child repeated “heavy” and nodded, almost as if she was grateful to have a word for why that block was so hard to carry.

You can even use these words with infants. Magda Gerber, one of the leaders in infant care, helped us know how important it is to say to a baby something like,“I’m going to pick you up now and take you across the room to change your diaper,” or “I’m going to put you down in your crib for a nap.” Not only are you showing you care by letting the baby know what’s coming (instead of just being unexpectedly swept up or put down), you’re also providing a rich language environment – for literacy and math!

With movement

A few weeks ago at my STEAM workshop, a teacher gave me a great suggestion. She asks the children to stand, sit or move with a partner in a way that shows, for example, the concept of “over.” Then she asks them to show another way, adding creative thinking -- and a basic STEAM understanding that there’s more than one way. Here are more examples of words for this activity: under, through, heavy, light, huge, tiny, next to, in front of, near, far.

Through movement, children can feel what these abstract terms mean in a physical, concrete and personal way. Imagine how helpful that is, especially for children who are kinesthetic learners.

Another way is to set up an obstacle course. Think about how many spatial relations words we use when we give directions, like in front of the line, around the hoop, under the table, behind the chair, etc. We usually think of using this activity to develop self-control and the ability to follow directions, but maybe you didn’t think about it as a way to also help children learn basic math concepts.

When you realize how important spatial relations words are for all kinds of learning, I have a hunch that you’ll be more intentional about using them – and that you’ll find more places in the day to use them with the children. And so will they.

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