When I was in first grade, I mastered math placement. Really. Math is not my strong suit, but my teacher read aloud Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.
The repeated text in the book is, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” I have come to chant those words, slapping my leg to the beat, every time I read this book to my preschool class. I tell the children they need to help me say the words, and each time it appears in the book, they chant along with me, loud and clear. Maybe my first grade teacher did the same thing.
The illustrations are pen and ink, yet finding all those cats- hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions- pulls children in. They clamor to see the pictures. The book was written in the 1920’s and continues to be a big hit. A book must be excellent, first and foremost, before it can teach.
Picture books can teach math. The outstanding ones, like Millions of Cats, sneak up on you. They put math in a real context, but first they draw the reader into the story, such as finding all the cats.
Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing in preschool? You bet! A good story can do just that. A case in point, The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins.
The story is about chocolate chip cookies. Mom makes the best batch from Grandma’s recipe. One dozen cookies. The reader sees two children sharing a dozen cookies. As friends arrive and the cookies must be shared, the reader then sees four children, and the words simply say, “That’s three each.” That visual is subitizing.
The new buzz word in math- subitizing- is being able to look at a grouping of objects, whether it is people, cookies, or the dots on a dice, and “know” what that number is. This book continues with more children arriving, and more dividing of the cookies. Of course it is the story itself, with a cliffhanger ending, that pulls in the reader.
And what about the ever-important counting and number recognition? The gold standard for the richest book in building upon numbers is Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno.
Math is sequential, a series of building blocks. This book starts with zero and builds to twelve, each page adding one more. For example:
Not only does the count of each object depicted increase by one, a new object is added to each page. Where number 2 shows two buildings, two people, two pine trees, at least seven different objects, number 9 shows many more objects. The book also goes through the seasons, adding visual excitement to an I Spy-esque counting adventure.
Children love good books. If those books are about math, they will be interested in math. And so it goes. Pretty powerful.