Building Math Muscles

Tara, this one’s for you!

First of all, I kind of feel like I’m a big cheater with this post. Cheating on my books and my literacy passion. Cheating on my soulmate. I guess that means I’m a pretty faithful and loyal woman, right? Nonetheless, I’m gona cheat, and it’s gona be ok.

I’d also be a fraud if I only ever talked about books and reading and writing on the “books” section of this blog because my roots with math go deep. Way deep.

When I was a little girl, math was HARD. I was the little girl who absolutely loved school – woke up on weekends disappointed it wasn’t a school day, played school with my fisher price chalkboard and stuffed animals (I even stole my first grade teacher’s chalk holder – I guess that makes me a thief, so yeah, there’s that.). But every day, when it was time for math, my heart sank and my stomach did somersaults.

I fell victim to the whole ‘women in math and science’ conundrum. Elementary school turned into middle school and high school, and by high school I was just trying to get through algebra and physics memorizing every formula. I still did well because formulas were rote and as long as I memorized I did ok enough to at least pass. I was never stellar, and despite AP and honors courses in humanities, I was much slower with math. And any time I had a novel problem that required me to think about what was needed to solve the problem rather than just apply a formula I had memorized, I failed. Epically. I cried and I stayed after and I doubted myself and I gave up. I HATED math; I’d never be a math person.

Looking back, I was so concerned with doing well in school that my strategy for memorizing only got me so far. I (nor my teachers) never took the time to actually help me understand what it meant. I didn’t have the number sense to make sense of numbers! I’m still the type that will pull out my cell phone calculator to figure out tips at restaurants or use my fingers for simple addition or subtraction.

Luckily I married a math guy so I don’t think my kids will have it too bad. Needless to say, I swore this off for my own kids. I wouldn’t let them fall victim to my own shortcomings, especially Tessa. I’m a mom on a mission with this one.

So we do math. We do math a lot. Not like “Hey it’s math time get your whiteboards ready!” But lots and lots of conversations and games and play based activities involving math. By golly these kids will have number sense if I kill myself trying. (And funny enough these activities have all helped me build my OWN number sense at 32 years of age..shh don’t tell anyone.)

I went back into my archives and pulled anything and everything math related with my kids that I ever documented. I organized it all into the math standards via Common Core, plus some add-ons. It’s not perfect…I’m much less confident in my math brain than I am in my literacy brain! (And I also know that making mistakes – mommys included – is ok, so I’m not afraid to be imperfect.) Hopefully I get your math brain going, and give you some ideas for what you might want to try with your own littles.

Counting and Cardinality

Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Measurement and Data

Geometry

Math Talk and Math Language

(Honestly, ALL of what I do includes math talk and math language – I could have put every single photo in this gallery.)

Patterns

A couple odd notes because it’s Friday night and I can’t really organize my brain…

I try my best to incorporate executive functioning and fine motor practice into many things we do. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that refers to one’s ability to organize, be flexible, plan, recall, and maintain self control. As adults, we use executive functioning skills subconsciously as we manage, plan, and monitor the many tasks that we must accomplish each day. It doesn’t come as naturally to kids – they need to be provided with experiences that help them struggle (in a good way!) through challenging tasks with the appropriate help and encouragement from you along the way.

Similarly, I think in today’s day and age we often take fine motor skills for granted. Fine motor skills are the coordination between smaller muscles. Think pincer grasp, cutting with scissors, threading beads, writing, buttoning, zippering (on the contrary think of gross motor skills like walking, running, throwing…). Therefore, I try and build these into as many activities as I can as well, especially and most importantly for the 2 year old.

Lastly, most (if not all) of what I do with the 4 year old is adaptable in some way to the 2 year old. That way I’m not planning double the activities, and they can use/benefit from the same materials. I tried to include the 2 year old in as many of the photos above so you can see how I tweaked activities slightly to match his developmental level. If anything, I ALWAYS let him participate even if it’s just free play with the same materials his brother is using. The brothers are each other’s biggest motivators, so I play on that as much as I can!

If anything, I hope this can be a good resource for you to come back to when you’re in need of something to do. Bookmark this page now so you don’t have to come digging later!

Taking a Toddler Through the Stages of Writing

So writing. Yeah. Probably the most hated subject by kids in elementary school. For lots of reasons – it’s hard! It takes lots of executive functioning to transform an idea into a plan into a draft into a revised draft into a published version. Not to mention the mechanical side of it – the physical act of handwriting (or typing if your kiddo is older!). It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience.

But I LOVE writing (duh, blog!), and I LOVE to teach it. And I absolutely love to teach it to the kids who struggle with it the most.

And writing is for all ages…looks more like language development and storytelling for babies and morphs into pictures and drawings for toddlers and finally transforms into conventional writing as kids move up the grades in elementary school. And it has such a reciprocal relationship to reading, that when you see a reader fall in love with writing or a writer fall in love with reading, your little teacher heart just melts.

I’m so happy that my own kiddos have taken to drawing and writing so much. My 4 year old is my little artist, and my 2 year wants to do everything he does. So it works. We do “drawing lessons” most days, and we’ve done quite a few full on books, whenever the 4 year old asks to!

This is my first foray into vlogging/visual blogging, so enjoy watching the stages of writing through the mind of a toddler!

No age is too young to start. His little brother is his shadow, so of course I incorporate him into our activities too. And since big brother is doing it, he usually eats it right up!

Like I said, there are so many other ways to encourage writing in young kids too – you don’t have to co-write big long books all the time. We do interactive drawing and writing all the time, and sometimes even directed writing too. Here’s an example!

And lastly, no need to just stick with fiction. Can do nonfiction too! Here’s an example!

(Still working on left to right directionality with that one!)

HAPPY WRITING!! 🙂

Inquiry with Toddlers

Purposeful and authentic learning is good for the soul. The mama soul AND the teacher soul AND the kid soul.

Parent-supported remote learning is hard. Really, really hard. It’s hard for me, and I’m a teacher. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working parents not in the field of education. Some of the best times with my bruises this past spring stemmed from learning experiences driven solely by them – their curiosities and questions (rather than the purely academic and pre-created tasks, activities, and/or worksheets). During these times, they were learning and growing and engaging in “school” without even knowing they were engaging in school. That’s the best kind of learning, and I’m here to hopefully give you enough info and background knowledge to at least get your brains wrapped around it, so you can hopefully try it out too.

First, let’s understand inquiry, in it’s true sense of the word and in relation to the educational world. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of inquiry:

What does this tell us? A few important things. First, it stems from questioning – and how many questions does your toddler ask per day? If they are anything like mine, it’s 39084094857450 billion. And lots of times toddlers especially can get fixated on topics that they don’t quite understand, but are trying in their brains to organize and sort information to help them understand it. (Right now my 4 year old is trying to understand death/dying/dead….need some advice on this one [perhaps a future post] so help a sister out if you have any ideas!) How amazing is it that I’m telling you, instead of you trying to answer these questions and not really knowing what to say, there’s a way you can turn it around on them and let them discover it themselves? Second, it requires investigation. It’s not just straight to google. Kids learn to answer their questions by doing – and ‘doing’ in all sorts of ways. Reading, writing, researching, experimenting, building, revising, reflecting.

Now, simply put, here’s the inquiry method as a teaching philosophy:

Kids go through a series of stages in order to investigate and answer their own questions. Ask and investigate are self explanatory. The creating stage revolves around finding some way to share work publicly. The best questions to investigate are purposeful – the answer to the question helps you DO something with it. And when you DO something, you get to share it with the world. This is extremely motivating for kids of all ages, but especially toddlers. Think about how proud they are of that massive lego tower or that painted self portrait. Discuss is important because we know as educators that kids learn best when they are able to socially construct knowledge – i.e., two brains are better than one mentality. And lastly, reflect is so important, now more than ever, because it signifies to kids that just because you may have ‘finished’ you project or ‘answered’ your question, it mostly likely will lead to more questions, ideas for how you might make it better, or how you might replicate it in bigger or better ways.

Sounds great, right? Well, sounds more like something you’d see in a high school or college classroom. Wrong. We use this model in the elementary classroom too (not like traditional school – way different than what you and I remember from when we went to school). I’m going to show you a few examples of how our family has made it work for a 2 and a 4 year old, and I think you’ll begin to see it better.

Exhibit A: Our Vegetable Garden

This one launched naturally and has been a larger project that has continued over time. It was around March, and we started to see the first daffodils of the season pop up. Dominic would see it in our driveway and scream “LOOK AT THE FLOWERS!”. And Luca would follow up with “Mommy how did those get there? Where did those come from?” Because he’s 4 and he asks questions about everything. Teacher brain kicked in, and over the next several days we researched flower and vegetable gardens, decided which one we wanted to try, and got to it. This part was amazing, because it required us to read and to watch and to write (literacy!), and measure and plan and price (math!). And it’s ongoing, with daily opportunities to engage in literacy and math in order to move forward – we’ve had to ask and answer more questions along the way. Like why our first ripe strawberry mysteriously went missing overnight (animals!) and what we could do to keep them away (coffee grinds!). Or how we keep tomato plants from bending and snapping due to their own weight.

Exhibit B: Hearts for Healthcare Heroes

This one came out of left field one day, in the early days of shutdown due to the pandemic. And it was shorter – only took us one morning to complete from start to finish. We had been watching the news at night, and Luca and Dominic would pick up on a lot of it. So we ended up having kid-appropriate conversations with them about what was going on with COVID (there’s a bad sickness spread easily by germs right now, school’s canceled and we have to stay home so other people don’t catch our germs and we don’t catch theirs!). One random day Luca asked what we could do to help people get better and feel better. A BIG question coming from a 4 year old, and I didn’t have any answers in my back pocket lined up. So we talked a lot about how there were heroes that were working really hard to help people get better and feel better while the rest of us stayed home. And he said, “Like doctors?”. Yes buddy, exactly. And nurses, and hospital workers, and lots of other people too. You should have seen his eyes when I asked, “Do YOU want to help too?”.

“But Mommy, I’m too little to help!” No, sir, no you are not. Enjoy the progress photos below to see what I mean. 🙂

Hands down, the best part about these projects? The pure JOY that radiates from these kids’ faces when we go out every morning to see if we have any fruits or veggies ripe for picking, or that moment they turned around outside and looked at our front door full of hearts for the first time. And can you imagine the excitement they had when they then noticed hearts appearing in our neighbors’ windows?!

Epilogue

Guys, I get it though. I really do. These moments described above are amazing. But also remember they aren’t every day. There are plenty of days where we did discrete academic activities or tasks, and days where I didn’t know what to do at all. And days where we actually did do NOTHING AT ALL. I did find some resources that helped me come up with some fun science and engineering investigations that I thought would be interesting and engaging for the kids, so of course I’m sharing them below. Click on the photo to be taken right to Amazon to fill your cart. Happy shopping!

For the Love of Reading

If you’ve read my introduction you know I’m a K-4 literacy specialist by trade. I love all things books, but one of my favorite things in the world is seeing little kids get lost in a book, jump up and down on library day, or laugh out loud and follow along as you read to them. Reading is magic, at least to me (and many others I think!), because it’s both therapeutic and informative, it’s both entertaining and educational (for life…not just when you’re little).

One of the single most important things when it comes to developing literacy skills in young children is encouraging and helping kiddos develop a love of reading. And this post will PREACH that. I mean legit PREACH it, because I’m about to offer 20 tips for encouraging the love of reading in your own kids. And if you even do some of these 20 things, you’ll be well on your way to creating an authentic reading environment for your kids to grow up in. And that environment is what will mold them and shape them into literate adults.

I’m not going to go into detail on all 20 things, because, well, you can read. but I will elaborate on a few that I believe are some of the most important.

  1. Reading aloud to your kids as much as possible and surrounding them with books is single-handedly the most important thing you can do. Not only will this help them develop a love of reading, but it will result in leaps and bounds in terms of language development. Not to mention it will establish sacred family time detached from screens and technology. And it’s NEVER too young to start!
  2. Don’t force it. This is especially hard for me with the boys. Because I want so badly for them to occupy their days pouring through books, transporting themselves to make-believe land or learning new facts to answer their wonderings. But the more you force it, the more you’ll create a combative culture around reading. And once you have a combative culture around reading, that can be one of the most challenging things to break. It’s also one of the things that can impede them from making normal progress in learning to read conventionally in school. Reading engagement is key.
  3. Choice. Kids need the freedom to choose what they want to read so they can wonder and explore and learn on their own time. But giving them choices also means you have a responsibility of showing them what all the choices can be. Expose them to different genres, different authors. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, but sometimes it’s easy to get pigeonholed if you don’t know what else is out there.
  4. And it’s NEVER too young to start. I’ll say it again. It’s never too young to start! I know this isn’t in the top 20, but just a reminder that there’s lots of research that suggests that even babies in the womb benefit from hearing mom or dad read to them. Starting early (a) helps you create a habit and (b) let’s a baby experience allllll the sensory aspects of reading, like touching and feeling and hearing and seeing (your facial expressions as you read).

Here’s what my kids are currently reading. Bruises on the left, when I asked them to pick their favorites from our current display in the playroom. Bow on the right – her current nightstand pile – the ones we read to her at bedtime.

I’m going to press pause for a second and give you some real honesty, because I can preach all I want but you also need to know reality. I did everything right with the bruises. We started reading to them straight out of the womb. And as babies and even in the early stages of toddlers, they ate it up. Loved reading. I would catch them knee deep in book baskets that I keep scattered around the house, all on their own.

As both boys have gotten older, they are starting to take more after their dad than me when it comes to reading. My husband’s facetious claim to fame is that he made it through high school with Spark Notes. “I’ve never finished a book in my life,” he brags. (Really something to brag about, huh?) Nowadays, they’d rather wrestle or run or play with PlayMobil over reading a book, and I’m lucky if they wander over to the book shelves and baskets on their own once a day. Now, who knows. It could be just a phase and they’ll come around again – I’m still doing all of the things I’m preaching in the most authentic way possible (without putting pressure on them). Or maybe they won’t, and that’s ok. Not everyone grows up to be a book lover. My husband’s doing just fine personally and professionally, even if he is a self-proclaimed anti-reader. I’ll never tell him this for the sake of his ego (albeit facetious), but he actually IS a reader. He just doesn’t realize he’s a reader – it’s just that he doesn’t read traditional things like books or magazines. But you can find him on his phone or iPad for hours, reading blogs or sports stories, or googling biographical information on Lin Manuel Miranda after watching Hamilton.

How To Increase Your Toddler’s Attention Span (Yeah, right!)

If you’re a toddler mom, tell me you haven’t experienced this before and I’ll tell you you’re lying:

In a moment of feeling bold, you decide to peruse Pinterest to find the perfect craft for your toddler(s). You start by selecting a cute and polished paper-plate pig that involves pink paint, a pom-pom nose, googly eyes, and some construction paper. You think, “Easy enough!” So next, you head to Amazon to buy the materials you don’t have hanging around the house. The next day, the materials have arrived so you spend all of nap time prepping…portion sizes of pink paint distributed into containers for each kid, old table cloths or newspaper taped to the tables, googly eyes laid out for selection, paper plates pre-cut to match the shape you’re looking for, construction paper pre-cut to the needed shapes. The kids are up and they are super amped for the craft of the day. They sit down at the craft table and before you can blink, there’s pink paint on the windows, pig ears glued where their butts should be (if glued at all!), and ten million googly eyes covering one pig (Guys, pigs only have two eyes, remember?). It’s one of those real Instagram vs. reality moments. There are two types of mom responses here. Either you give up on your Pinterest perfect dreams right then and there and live in the moment of chaos, OR you tell the kids to go find something to do while you finish/fix the paper plate pigs yourself. And then you hang them up on the kids art wall as if the kids actually made them themselves. Oy vey.

Ok so, moral of the story…how do you get a toddler to actually have enough attention span and motivation to do something without it (a) turning into complete and total chaos and (b) entertaining them for all of 5 seconds before they’re on to the next best thing?

Here’s where my professional expertise comes in:

The *fake* answer, but definitely grounded in lots of research and development theory: engagement through motivation and developmental appropriateness. Motivation for a toddler is usually extrinsic…i.e. is the activity or materials you are using new and novel, and bright and shiny? Seriously, think about a kid in a candy shop, or a toy store for that matter. Bright, shiny, new – we definitely don’t have it already. This triggers curiosity and desire, which is step 1 for attention spans and motivation. Developmental appropriateness is huge for toddlers too…i.e. is the activity doable for the toddler? They haven’t yet developed the idea of persistence or growth mindset, so if something is judged as too hard or they get frustrated, they’ll give right up. Let me tell you, those Pinterest perfect crafts are almost always NOT DOABLE for toddlers…show me a 3 year old’s perfect fingerprint tree that looks exactly like the model picture…you can’t!

Here’s where my mom-pertise comes in:

The *real* answer, grounded in lots of trial and error with my own kids as guinea pigs: You can’t and you don’t! A colleague once told me multiply your child’s age by two, and that’s the number of minutes your child can attend to one activity at a time. So if your kid is 2, that’s 4 minutes of attention per activity; if your kid is 4, that’s 8 minutes of attention per activity. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, but it made sense to me, and I’d even go so far as to say some days that mathematical formula is even pushing it. So the best way of getting around it is by adjusting YOUR expectations for their attention spans, not trying to actually change theirs. Avoid big elaborate activities, or at least don’t have such high expectations for yourself that the water park you set up outside (water table, sprinkler, baby pool, slip and slide) will entertain the toddler for the entire afternoon. Because guess what? It won’t!

Soooo, what does that mean? You’re telling me there’s no hope? Negative, there is hope. Just re-adjust your approach and you won’t be disappointed. If you need to kill time at home and want to provide activities for your toddler outside the regular free play, select a small amount of time, and plan lots of tiny, easily-preparable activities for that small amount of time.

In the dog days of the pandemic when school was still in session but kids were home and parents tasked with schooling (or if they are elementary-aged, parents supporting/teaching schooling), I’d pick 1 hour per day as “school time”. But during that hour we’d do about 5-7 different things. We ALWAYS did morning “circle” songs, calendar, and read-aloud; those are non-negotiable. As for the rest…Sometimes I’d have themed activities around a “material of the day”. So if play-doh was the material of the day, we’d write with play-doh, do math with play-doh, do sensory and scissor skills with play-doh, make a craft with play-doh, etc. Or sometimes I’d just have all different small activities related to literacy, numeracy, fine-motor, and problem-solving skills that had no theme at all but introduced new materials that the kids don’t typically have free access to in the playroom. I’ll be showcasing what some of these days looked like more in upcoming blog posts, but just for reference all of the photos in the tile gallery at the beginning of this post are activities we did during one of our first days of “School at Home”, as Luca likes to call it.

[Bare with me as I start to move all my instagram highlight reels over to the blog…]

Tile gallery image caption, from left to right: (1) Name rockets – a fun way for kids to practice writing or making their name. My 2 year old got his name letters pre-written and he just had to put them in order, whereas my 4 year old had to pick blank squares and write each letter on a square. (2) Counting jellyfish – I prepped this while they were doing their name rockets. My 2 year old just had to work on beading each pipe cleaner, which requires a lot of attention to fine motor skills. My 4 year old had to count, recognize numbers, and practice 1:1 correspondence by making sure the number of beads on the pipe cleaner matched the number written above. (3) Mystery book buddies – I would arrange a facetime call with a friend or family member, and the kids would get to pick books to “read” aloud to their mystery book buddy on facetime. Their friend or family member also got to “read” to my kids. Even though they weren’t actually reading any of the words (or if they were, it was from memory, not true decoding skills), they were practicing story structure or reading the pictures and this is a huge step in language development. Not to mention continuing to develop their love of reading. (4) Scientific drawings of things found outside – A great way to encourage pre-writing (that stage before kids actually write letters and words to make sentences) is to encourage drawing and labeling. One way to do this is to find things outside and accurately draw them and label the parts. This helps kids start to understand that writing represents something (i.e. has a message), and once ‘written’ the message doesn’t change.

“To Go” Packs

Moms, you can thank me later. We created “To Go” packs organically one day when I literally couldn’t fit the things the bruises were asking me to take with them into my diaper bag. It’s stuffed to the brim with all the stuff I actually need, and probably forgotten toys and snacks at the bottom because it’s just an endless pit anyways. They’ve been a lifesaver and here’s why.

Luca and Dominic get to pack their “To Go” packs every time we go to a restaurant or any place that doesn’t have kid-friendly activities or things to do. I have rules around my “To Go” packs, and they actually LOVE when it’s time to whip ’em out and pack ’em up. The rules are simple:

  1. Anything you pack has to fit in the To Go pack. This helps us (me!) avoid having to tote around a massive T-Rex or over-sized coloring book.
  2. The To Go pack has to zip up. This helps us (me!) avoid having to bring every animal, car, dino, food item, notebook, and crayon along with us.
  3. You have to carry your own To Go pack. This helps ME. Period. Not only am I no longer responsible for keeping track of and finding the things you’d like to play with at the restaurant, but I also don’t have to break my back lugging a 40 pound diaper bag around.
  4. The To Go pack has to have a combination of learning toys and for-fun toys. The learning toys (see photo above) are kept in a place where the boys don’t have every-day access to, and the for-fun toys are toys from the playroom they can simply choose to bring along. They end up loving the learning toys the most anyway because novelty is good and I like to add new things into the box randomly so they are always surprised.
  5. The To Go pack never has food or snacks. My kids snack their way through the day anyway, so free access to all things food, especially junk, never works out in my favor. And I don’t want to find any ants or bugs in your bag because you put an open but unfinished travel pack of goldfish back in there. I keep the snacks in the diaper bag.

There’s a reason every mom and teacher loves Target, Home Goods, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s. ALL my learning toys usually come from the bargain aisle at Target (Ladies, NOW is the time to hit this aisle up if there’s any chance the kids will be home with you for remote learning in the fall. If you wait till August, it’s picked over and all the good stuff’s gone!), or one of the Maxx franchises. The bruises and I really love the Melissa and Doug brand. It’s a CT based company so we feel like we’re supporting something local (just in my head?), and they tend to be quality products that are easy on the eye, not electronic, developmentally appropriate, educational, and affordable. The Water Wow packs and travel coloring kits are some of our favorites.