Using verse to expand children’s understanding of mathematics is easy – but don’t just stick with familiar counting rhymes, says Brenda Williams…
With the exception of number rhymes, poems are easily overlooked as an inspiration for mathematical activities. However, many rhymes can offer a range of ideas to promote interest and understanding in number, shape, measurement, patterns, mathematical language and problem-solving. You can use the poem on this page, Winter, Winter Winter, as an introduction to some seasonal involvement in mathematically related concepts, and the new and traditional rhymes later in the article will be of use all year round…
Read and enjoy the following poem, ‘Winter, Winter, Winter’ together on several days…
Starry, starry night
Snowy, snowy day
Pretty patterned footprints
Where we were out at play!
Frosty, frosty snowflakes
On the window pane
Silver, silver spider’s webs
Hang from trees again.
Roly, poly snowmen
Smiling in the sun
Dress them in a scarf and hat
Now’s the time for fun!
Icy, icy icicles
Freezing, freezing cold
Snap them from the window ledge
Far too cold to hold!
Winter, winter, winter
Sledging on the hills
Children throwing snowballs
Now’s the time for thrills!
© Brenda Williams
Create a ‘winter wonderland’ in your setting, displaying mathematical work inspired by the poem, then try the following ideas…
● Cut into the length of some cardboard toilet roll cylinders, from one end to within 1.5 centimetres of the other. Repeat, to form five evenly spaced sections. Flatten these out, to represent stars, then invite children to paint them white, before scattering on gluey silver sparkle.
● Pin them to a night sky canopy of black cloth, in groups from 1–10. Count them, asking which group has more or less than other groups, and which group has the most or the least. Change groupings frequently.
Patterns, shapes and sizes
Our youngest children will have little memory of previous winters, but a snowy day will transform their world into an exciting place of changed scenes, and interesting patterns.
● Discuss the pretty patterned footprints mentioned in the poem. Did children notice how their feet left imprints in the snow? Kitted out with Wellingtons, ask children to make fresh footprints. Compare the patterns individual footwear makes with those of other children. Can children identify other tracks made by birds, cats or dogs?
● Recreate snowy footprint patterns by setting up a low tray of thick, white paint for children to step into wearing Wellingtons, before walking on black sugar paper. Display the footprints and discuss their differing sizes, shapes, and patterns. Can children match their Wellingtons to the patterns?
● Place bird food on a tray outside, and watch birds create patterns in the snow around it. Try making trails of bird prints as triangles across a long rectangular strip.
Show children some images of frosted spider’s webs downloaded from the Internet. Let them experiment with white pipe-cleaners to create similar web patterns, and then display them hanging from black paper outlines of trees, or real tree branches.
Size, shape and measurement
● Build a real snowman by rolling three snowballs in snow, until they are of three different sizes. Describe the balls as spheres. Compare their sizes, before placing them in order, with the largest ball at the bottom. Dress in a scarf and hat. Alternatively, if the weather is unkind, help children to create a model snowman in the same way, using white plasticine or playdough.
● Outside, measure the snowman’s height by asking children to stand next to it, and judging whether it is taller, shorter, or the same as they are. Indoors, make a large two-dimensional display snowman. Talk about the shape and the relative sizes of three graduated large white cardboard circles. Place one inside the other for comparison before building.
● Invite children to compare the length of their own scarves, by placing them in length order. Ask them to measure the lengths of corridors, heights of tables or widths of cupboards in scarf lengths. Include the idea of half-lengths by showing them how to fold a scarf in half.
Weighing and subtraction
If possible take children to see real icicles. If not, there are some beautiful images on the internet.
● Compare the weight of icicles on simple balancing scales. Which is heaviest, or lightest? Can children create a balanced weight by adding other icicles to the lightest side? In the absence of real icicles, make some of different lengths and weights from white clay or plasticine.
● Cut out fringes of icicles from silver paper to place around the heads of children before asking them to role play the following number rhyme:
Five little icicles
Shining in the sun.
Melting with a drip, drop,
Then one was gone!
(Final line: ‘Then there were none!’)
Challenge children to say how many are left, as one child ‘melts’ to the floor at the end of each verse. Then continue with the next lowest number.
● Involve children in colouring cardboard shapes of sledges, each in a different colour.
● Display a snowy hill of white sugar paper on a wall. Place two sledges on the hill with blue tack. Ask the children, “Which sledge is higher up the hill?” and “Which sledge is lower?”
● Add more sledges, and discuss their relative positions, asking, “Is the red sledge higher or lower than the green one?”, “What colour is the sledge between the yellow and blue sledge?” or, “Which sledge is above (or below) the orange one?”
Draw large circles on a 2D display snowman, numbered from one to five. Make ‘snowballs’ by covering small bean bags in white material or crepe paper. Let children name which number they hit when throwing their snowballs at the snowman.
Explore new ways of using number rhymes for activities to support children’s understanding of all areas of early year’s mathematics…
There were ten in a bed
and the little one said,
roll over, roll over.
They all rolled over
and one fell out… (etc.)
Numbers, measurement and sizes
● Make a mock-up bed. Ask children to find 10 soft toys, measure them against each other, and place in order, graduating from smallest to tallest.
● Count and discuss the relative sizes of the toys.
● Say the rhyme, letting the smallest toy fall out.
● Count the toys again. Ask children, “Which is the smallest now?”
● For older children, place a number card at the head of the bed. Start with number 10, and ask them to select and change to nine, eight etc., as the rhyme progresses.
This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed at home,
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none.
And this little piggy went…
“Wee wee wee” all the way home…
● Make a display of a giant foot. Number the toes from one to five outside each toe.
● Write the rhyme inside each of the relevant toes.
● Read the rhyme, pointing to each toe, until it is familiar.
● Say each part of the rhyme slowly, as children read the displayed number for that toe.
● Ask children to count their own toes on one foot.
● Ask older children to work out how many toes two feet will have.
● As an alternative, use as a finger rhyme.
Red, yellow, blue, green
The prettiest pattern I have seen.
Orange, green, yellow, blue
Can you make this pattern too?
© Brenda Williams
● Introduce the poem Making Patterns as you show children objects of the relative colour. Once the rhyme is familiar, invite children to create the suggested patterns by sequencing beads on a thread in the same order, as they say one line of the poem.
● Older children could try colouring strips of squared paper in the same sequences.
● Help younger children to sort and sequence small coloured objects as you say the poem with them.
● Ask children to make up their own sequences of colour.
Roll out the pastry,
See what you can make
Roll it very thin and long
To make a wriggly snake.
Roll out the pastry,
See what you can make
Roll it in a little ball
Then squash it like a cake!
Exploring two dimensional shapes, outlines and sequencing
● Demonstrate the suggestions in the poem Roll out the Pastry as you say the rhyme, using pastry, playdough or plasticine. Repeat it as the children follow the rhyme themselves.
● Encourage children to experiment with ‘snakes’ to see what outlines they can make, such as a square, circle, triangle or rectangle. Can they make a square for a house, with a triangle for a roof? Could they use the ‘squashed’ cake shape as wheels for a lorry? Extend the activity by asking children to feel the shapes of flat plastic triangles, circles, squares and rectangles.
● Engage them in counting and comparing the number of ‘sides’ to these shapes, then show them how to make simple tessellation patterns.
● Follow this by drawing around the shapes to create patterns or outline pictures such as houses, lorries, lollipops.
● Create a circular clown’s face with different shapes as features, wearing a triangular hat with bobbles (circles) on.
● To consolidate their understanding of the shapes, older children could cut out their outlines to glue into patterns or pictures.
● Suggest they make sequential patterns of shapes, such as ‘circle, triangle, circle’, or ‘square, oblong, square’. Younger children could do so with the plastic two-dimensional shapes while older children use some they have drawn, coloured and cut out.
Five little socks
muddled in a box
Two red socks together
Two green socks, a pair
But one blue sock’s left over
Can this be a spare!
● Use the poem below as an introduction to sorting activities. Place two red, two green and one blue sock in a box and ask individual children to demonstrate sorting them into pairs, with one ‘left over.’
● Develop the activity by changing the numbers, colours or patterns of the socks each day. You can extend it further with other items suitable for pairing, such as shoes with buckles or laces, gloves and mittens.
Brenda Williams is a children’s author, poet, and educational writer. She is an early years specialist and former teacher. Her books include Lin Yi’s Lantern, The Real Princess, and Home for a Tiger, Home for a Bear, published by Barefoot Books, and Fun With Action Rhymes and Poems by Brilliant Publications. Visit her website.