Real (and Creative) Math

Ginger Carlson
September 23, 2016

If ever there was an all around creativity, problem solving, and thinking builder, it would be math! With a strong foundation for how math is used and its potential for solving problems, young children can get the right start to their relationship with math. Through the use of models and concrete experience, they can find the magic that math has to offer and have fun in the process!

Mathematical Models

As with all areas of creativity, the best way to introduce and encourage mathematical thinking is to uncover opportunities for your child to see math everyday. Point out mathematical thinking just as you would a work of art or a beautiful song. Talk to people about the different ways they use math. Point out the way you use math in everyday life. You will soon find that math is everywhere, incorporated into sports, medicine, writing, maps, weather, art, philosophy, religion, astronomy, games, architecture, and most any other discipline you can think up. And of course, some of the best models we have our in the stories we share with our kids:

The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins - Friends and cookies...what better way to learn a little bit about computation in bite size ways?




How Big is a Foot? by Rolf Myllar  - A fantastic book for introducing standardized measurement (and why it is important).  Try doing some measuring of your own with all the different feet in your house to really make your little ones understand and even get a few good belly laughs!


The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle - I hardly need to tell any parent of a preschooler about Eric Carle's classic caterpillar who eats his way through the week, but don't forget what it gives us to help our little ones learn about the days of the week and the passage of time.



The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle - And if we're talking about Eric Carle and the passage of time, give The Grouchy Ladybug a shot for introducing clocks and their use in our world.




Grandfather Tang's Story by Ann Tompert   - A wonderful tale told through geometric shapes!  Make your own set of tangrams to follow the story, retell it, and explore on your own with shapes and patterns. 



On My Beach There Are Many Pebbles by Leo Lionni - I just love all of Leo Lionni's books, but this one has a special place in my heart, and it is a great book for exploring collections and classification with children of all ages!



Mathematical Problem Solving the Creative Way

Solving problems is at the heart of building creativity. Having the skills to solve a problem is perhaps the most important element when embarking on your creative mathematical journey.

Children who are exposed to mathematical thinking early in concrete and tangible ways are more likely to be able to grasp concepts later and they often spend too much time learning calculations through pencil and paper methods. That said, it is important to provide opportunities for everyday math to occur in concrete ways other than paper and pencil and straight computations.
Some ways your child may go about solving math problems could include:

Acting it Out

Young children often need to use their bodies or other types of manipulative items (beans, coins, blocks, and the handiest ones: fingers) to solve problems. They have not yet internalized enough background knowledge about numbers and number combinations to mentally perform math problems (although some may be able) so provide opportunities for children to act out problems with their bodies or material objects.

Drawing a Picture

Many young children enjoy drawing. If you have a problem you are trying to solve, let them draw to find the answer. "We have three cats, two dogs, and one fish. How many animals do we have in all?" Use drawn pictures to make maps of their bedroom, your house, yard, or garden. Let your child experiment with rearranging the furniture by using small pictures of each item on a larger piece.


Estimation is an art, and like all other forms of art, it takes practice. If you can incorporate estimation into your life, this will be foundational to your child internalizing guessing and estimating into their problem-solving repertoire. Estimate everything from how many steps it will take you to get to the car, how many toy dinosaurs will fit in the measuring cup, to how many jugs of water it takes to fill up the bath.. When children have a good idea what an answer might be, they are able to measure their results against it. The more estimating you do, the better children become at using the skill to solve problems.

Make it Simple

When we ask children to do math, we oftentimes are asking a lot. If your child is trying to solve a problem that feels difficult, help her break it down to a simpler problem, maybe even a simple problem she has already had practice with.

Look for a Pattern

Seeing patterns is foundational to being a good mathematician and developing an understanding for how numbers work together. Without it, you have only your memory to rely on in math. When your child is trying to figure out how many forks and spoons to bring to the breakfast table, guide him in counting by twos.

Incorporate the Vocabulary

As you begin to explore math tools and concepts with your children, always be mindful of using math vocabulary when talking about your own thinking and how you solve a problem. If children have opportunities to hear and familiarize themselves with math words being used in their everyday life, the concepts will not seem so daunting to them. As you are going throughout your day, use number, time, direction, comparison, measurement, and geometry words as they occur naturally.  The more you talk about your own mathematical thinking, the more your children will start to do the same and develop strategies for solving problems.

Explore the magic math has to offer. As you journey through mathematical thinking together, you'll begin to see creativity and problem solving emerge.

Ginger Carlson, MA Ed, is a speaker, education consultant, and the author of Child of Wonder: Nurturing Creative and Naturally Curious Children

Originally published in 2009. 

From the Parents

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