Focus on...using mathematical story sacks
Using a story as a stimulus for mathematical activities is a familiar idea. Using story sacks as a way of engaging and holding children’s interest during story sessions is also common practice. It seems sensible then to explore the ways in which the two approaches can be combined to support effective learning. In fact, many of the items which you will find in story sacks have the potential to be used in a mathematical context; others can be adapted to do this. In some cases, a few simple additions to an existing sack will extend the usefulness of the story in a mathematical way.
Here are some suggestions:
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs (Picture Puffin), ISBN 978-0140501254 (not very seasonal, but no reason not to plan ahead!). Although currently only out of print, a re-issue edition will be available from 28 October 2010.
I used this story as the basis of a large group activity with a Reception class. Alongside knitted mince pies and a wooden reindeer, the sack contained a Santa hat and a number of presents.
The main activity involved children taking turns to be Santa and deliver a present to a friend (while the rest of the group pretended to be asleep). We counted the presents at the start of the activity and after each delivery we estimated how many presents would be left in the sack and counted again to see if we were right. From this, we could see, for instance, that if Santa set off with six presents in his sack and delivered one, five would remain. This fact was reinforced by looking at a number line, thus linking the idea of taking away with that of counting back in the context of ‘one less than’.
The story sack was also used as the basis of focus group activities throughout the week. These involved work on sequencing and also, since the presents were carefully chosen, 3D shape. It was a very effective twist on the standard ‘feely bag full of shapes’ activity and tapped into a context which was important to the children. It made the shapes themselves more appealing by wrapping them in colourful and attractive ways.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Puffin), ISBN 978-0140569322
For those who don’t want to wait until Christmas!
This is, of course, an old favourite. I don’t imagine there is a setting in the country which doesn’t have a copy of this book and I’m sure many people already use it as a basis for work on sequencing and to initiate counting. However, I think this story offers other opportunities which are not always fully exploited.
A key idea in the story is that, as the caterpillar eats, he grows. The story sack needs to contain at least 3 caterpillars of varying sizes. These can be bought or made quite easily using old pairs of tights. The caterpillars can then be used to tackle the dominance of the words ‘big’ and ’little’. The children can be encouraged to identify the ways in which the caterpillar is growing i.e. he is longer, wider, fatter, heavier.
This story also offers opportunities for practical problem solving and investigation. Your sack will need to contain plenty of fruits (real, sewn or plastic) and also some leaves to use as plates. Here are some ideas for what you could do:
Using the leaves, the children work in pairs or small groups to make a display of the fruits the caterpillar eats during the week. This will provide a purposeful context for counting, for modelling of and assessing counting skills as appropriate. It will also allow for adult interactions comparing quantities of different fruits. Each set of fruit could be labelled with the appropriate numeral to forge the link between symbol and quantity. The display can become a free choice activity for children to explore as they wish.
On the fifth day the caterpillar eats five oranges. The task is to put the fruit out ready for him to find on the leaves. Using two leaves, how many different ways can the fruit be set out? This will be a starting point in the important process of learning to partition five. Numerals can also be introduced, with children finding the numbers to match the quantity of fruit on the leaves or trying to write them for themselves.
Introduce more than one caterpillar! The extra caterpillars will increase the potential usefulness of the sack significantly. With two caterpillars, you can introduce the idea of odd and even numbers by looking at the amounts which can be shared equally between the two and those where there is one left over. Going back to the idea of setting out food, with two or more caterpillars this can involve work on making sets of equal sizes.
Handa’s Hen by Eileen Brown (Walker Books Ltd) ISBN 978-0744598155
This is one of my favourite stories to use as a basis for counting. Young children need to count, therefore they must want to count. This means we need to provide them with items which are intrinsically engaging and constantly varied. The creatures which Handa encounters in this story are, in most instances, beyond the daily experience of the children and therefore novel. They are also beautiful and so appeal to the children’s imaginations.
However, with this book I would exploit the story sack idea in a slightly different way, by allowing the children to create their own. First, each child could produce a book in which they are the central character seeking something they have lost (links with Communication, Language and Literacy). The child could then make a sack in which to put items which they come across in their search (Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy (PSRN), as the size of the sack is important, but this also links with Creative Development). Finally, the child collects the correct number of each item to go in their sack. This could be a very worthwhile homework activity. Most parents teach their children to recite the number sequence. A simple booklet outlining the ways in which they could help their children to further develop their counting skills could be sent home to support this task. Take a look at last month’s Maths to share which uses Getting children counting to help you create a ‘Helping to develop your child’s counting’ checklist.
The last stage in the process would be for the children to step into the teacher’s role and read their story to the rest of the class. This would clearly provide opportunities for counting. Where more than one child has chosen the same items to collect, the discussion could include consideration of who had more or less of them. Comparisons could be made by lining the items up, thus introducing ideas of difference.
There is a vast selection of books which can be used to support work in PSRN and all of them could be made more useful with the accompaniment of a story sack. Putting a sack together need not be arduous or time consuming. Even everyday items are more interesting if they are produced in an appropriate context from an attractive bag. If you, your friends or relatives have skills in needlework, knitting or woodwork and you can persuade them to apply their talents to the task, the results will be even better.
The suggestions above are by no means exhaustive in relation to the texts mentioned. Once you have made a sack, you will find, with a bit of ingenuity, it can be adapted for use with diverse topics, ability levels and ages. Do let us know about your own story sacks and how you use them.