STEAM Storytime: Math!

Image credit: The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat (Disney/Hyperion, 2016)

STEAM Storytime’s next subject: Math! During this storytime, we worked on addition, subtraction, and problem solving skills. The result? Two highly interactive read-alouds and a very useful take-home craft to help build number sense. Read on!

Note: Rather than sing, I start STEAM Storytime with a discussion. My intention is to sort of mimic the scientific method with the program. We start by observing, and then I come up with a question and ask the kids for their hypotheses before we experiment. Before the kids leave, I ask them to report what they’ve learned. That’s the goal anyway. Full disclosure: I’ve yet to achieve this goal. Still, I find it’s helpful to have a concept to frame my storytime practice.

Discussion: Math problems

I began with simple math problems, like 2+2 = 4 or 3+2 = 5. By the time I did 8 + 2 = 10, I noticed that many of the participants were using their fingers to count. I took the opportunity to introduce the star of today’s show: the rekenrek. A rekenrek is an arithmetic rack (not unlike an abacus) that help kids develop addition/subtraction strategies and think in terms of 5s and 10s.

For example, on a rekenrek, you would show 8+ 2 = 10 with 8 beads on the top row (5+3) and 2 beads on the bottom row.

Book: Mice Mischief by Caroline Stills, illus. Judith Rossell

mic mischief

With my makeshift rekenrek in hand, I told this counting tale. There are ten mice in all and the pages configure them into different sets of 10 (e.g., “4 mice scrub. / 6 mice dive.”). Like with the math problem above, I used the top row of the rekenrek for the verso page and the bottom for the recto. Kids still had a hard time counting them up but I think it helped them visualize.

One of the things to look for with rekenreks is whether kids understand grouping of 5s and 10s. When I asked what 5+5 was, one kid was able to answer immediately. I asked why and she said “because the red ones are on the top and the bottom.” What was most interesting to me, though, was that even though the answer to every single math problem in this book was 10, the children never caught on. They struggled equally with the remaining problems in the book.

Activity: Roll a Giant Dice

I had them practice number identification by rolling a giant dice and then doing a movement (jumping, spinning, clapping, etc.) as many times as the number we rolled. Since there were so few of us this time (a grand total of eight), each child who wanted to got their chance to roll the giant dice and decide what movement we were going to do. There were some shy participants but everyone had fun.

Song: “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom”

Book: The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat

cookie fiasco

This book is excellent for early math because it’s basically a (hilarious) story problem. I drew three cookies on my easel and drew lines to half and quarter them as we read along. Once we knew there were twelve pieces total to divvy up, I also wrote math sentences as kids guessed how many cookie pieces each character should get.

The first guess was that each should get 2, so I wrote:


Another guess was 1, so I wrote:


When I wrote these longer sentences, children struggled to answer them. But when I condensed them (e.g., 6+6 rather than 3+3+3+3), the kids answered more quickly and didn’t have to count out as much on their fingers.

Activity: DIY Rekenreks

source: Math Coach’s Corner

I was really excited about this activity, but the kids were really hesitant. In fact, I almost thought none of them were going to make it because they seemed to not have any interest—I imagine their grown-ups must have encouraged them. When they got into it, most kids were easily able to follow the instructions. I pre-cut and presorted all the pieces, so it wasn’t intended to last long. Then I gave them a handout of activities to try at home. One of my regulars asked “Is this all we’re doing today?”

How It Went: Given all the prep work I’d put into this one, I was really disappointed at first when no one came. We’ve consistently had an attendance issue with this program, but it was the first time no one showed up on time. When they showed up late, I made the best of it. I actually think it was one of my best storytimes because the target skills were so clear and the activity really connected to not only the theme but the stories themselves. Having math as a theme has been a delightful challenge. How are the kids reacting to it? Well, one of my regulars asked when it was going to be dinosaur month again…

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