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Faculty Insights Blog

Barnesville School of Arts & Sciences teachers and other faculty members share insights about childhood development and educational issues.

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Make Math Fun with Manipulatives!

Insights From Linda Birkholz, First Grade Teacher

Unless you are a teacher, you probably don’t use the term “math manipulative” on a daily basis. But, if you’ve ever helped your child count Cheerios or sort blocks by color, then you are already using manipulatives that are helping to build early math skills. You are also showing your kids that math is fun!

Using manipulatives to solve math problems and understand math concepts is not new. For example, there is documented use of an abacus in 2nd century China. The beads of the abacus were moved across a counting frame to calculate and record numbers.

But in the age of computers, why use manipulatives? The simple reason is that math concepts are abstract, and manipulatives give students a concrete object to represent the concept being learned.

One of the clearest explanations I have found for using manipulatives is offered by Scholastic Magazine: “Math Manipulatives help make abstract ideas concrete. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but while children learn to identify animals from picture books, they still probably don't have a sense about the animals' sizes, skin textures, or sounds. Even videos fall short. There's no substitute for firsthand experience. Along the same lines, manipulatives give students ways to construct physical models of abstract mathematical ideas.”

My first graders have always enjoyed using concrete objects to problem solve, but manipulatives are not exclusively for our youngest students. In fact, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends using manipulatives, in addition to other teaching methods, at all grade levels, K-6. Do middle school students seem a little old to be using manipulatives to you? If so, think about how scale models are used. For instance, a few years back at our school’s facilities director created a model of an outdoor playscape that helped parents, staff, and our Board better visualize plans for our preschool and kindergarten play area.

If you have a young child, are you wondering what manipulatives you need to purchase? Blocks and legos are a great start. While counting bears come in bright primary colors and are appealing to young children, they aren’t necessary. There are many other fun ways of using the manipulatives you naturally have in your home to learn math concepts and solve problems. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. You can count as you take each step up and down the stairs with your toddler.
  2. Your child can match the number of people eating a meal with the number of utensils they put on the table.
  3. You can find change around the house for your primary student to sort and count.
Incorporating math manipulatives into your child’s daily routine and playtime helps them see that math is all around us and that math is fun!

-- Linda Birkholz has been teaching first grade at Barnesville School of Arts & Sciences since 2003. You can read her professional bio here.

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Kindergarten Prep?

Insights From Ellen Landriau, Kindergarten Teacher

There is so much pressure on kids to succeed these days, and as silly as it sounds, it begins before they even start school. I have been teaching kindergarten for 29 years (teaching in general for 40 years), and while the subject matter I teach has not changed dramatically, the societal pressures around “getting ready” for and “being successful” in kindergarten have.

Amid all the added pressure, parents nonetheless express dismay that early childhood is not as fun as it should be. I have some good news for parents torn between laying a good foundation for academic success and making time for play. You can have it all. Actually, you should insist on it.

Young children learn through play, and learning can and should be a joyous endeavor. Nowhere is this more clear than in a thriving kindergarten classroom.

Before I offer a checklist of skills a child needs to be “ready” for kindergarten, I first want to share my personal checklist for getting my classroom ready for kindergarteners:

  • Visual queues for future readers - colorful letters and sight words with pictures posted around the classroom
  • Comfortable reading spaces - places for reading aloud as a group and for curling up alone with great books
  • Art - works by famous artists as well as student artwork, updated regularly
  • Personal space - each child needs an easily accessible place to store their personal belongings so they can learn to take responsibility for them
  • Great play spaces - kids need time and space to move, explore, and play, inside and outside the classroom

More important than any of the physical components of my classroom is the overall environment I strive to create. My classroom must be a safe, nurturing place where students know it is O.K. to take a risk, make mistakes, and be accepted. That is a year-long endeavor that requires each child’s active participation in our classroom community.

Following is a checklist of skills that help incoming kindergartners make the most of our time together:

  • Name - writes his/her first name
  • Alphabet - able to identify and match most upper and lower case letters
  • Numbers - knows numbers through 10
  • Motor Skills - can zip a coat, put caps back on markers, and use scissors
  • Group Dynamics - participates in group activities and takes direction from an adult (other than their parent)

So, what can parents do to help children do well in kindergarten? Here are five suggestions. The key to all of them is having fun together.

  1. Read to your child daily. Discuss the story and characters. Stop before the story ends, and come up with your own ending. Then compare your ending with the actual one.
  2. Focus on the alphabet one-letter-at-a-time. Go on an outing and find everything you can that begins with that letter. Talk about all the things you find. Draw your favorite thing you found with that letter and try writing the letter.
  3. Find math in everyday things, counting silverware as it gets put away, measuring ingredients as you make cookies, adding up the number of dishes on the table, counting and spending money or adding up money earned for helping out.
  4. Encourage your child to play in the mud, dance in the rain, play on a playground, paint, color and cut!
  5. Treasure together time. Limit screen time, and instead play games, explore your neighborhood, eat dinner as a family, and just talk.

The most effective kindergarten lessons are hands-on experiences that relate learning to the real world. That starts at home, and it can be as simple as noticing, talking about, and enjoying the little things together.

-- Ellen Landriau teaches kindergarten at Barnesville School of Arts & Sciences. You can view her professional bio here.

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