The Five Senses of Math

posted by Diann Gano

We spend a lot of time outdoors. Playing. That play involves math in such natural ways that it is easy to overlook how often math comes into our lives. Research has found that early math proficiency is a better predictor of future academic success, high school graduation and college attendance than any other childhood skill. (National Governors’ Association, Unlocking Young Children’s Potential: Governors’ Role in Strengthening Early Mathematics Learning

So, here at Under the Ginkgo Tree, we encourage that investigation and provide materials that support children’s development of math concepts. Outdoors, the process for mastering the fundamentals of math is truly enhanced in a holistic and inviting environment. Come see how we create these opportunities using all five senses for all types of learners.

SIGHTexamining a tree trunk

Regardless of the season, we often spend time seeing how tall or small our friends are using resources that are available to us. Sometimes we use tape measures, but often we have other ideas.

Adding magnifying glasses, kaleidoscopes, and binoculars will slow your children down. They will look closer, longer, and think harder. Remember, we are giving them lots of time to investigate and explore and enjoy their childhood. Add these to your play space!

measuring with apples





mesauring with carrots








magnifying glass







Right! Three! Did you count? No, you subitized! We love to subitize. Subitzing is seeing a small amount of objects and knowing the number without counting. Playing with dice, you roll a six and without counting the 6 pips, you know it is six. We often play this game with fingers. We place both hands behind our back and then bring forward one hand with a few fingers showing. As they get better at this, we make it faster, or change the finger arrangement, or add both hands. We also work with subitizing outdoors with any given object. Kids love this game and I encourage you to play it often. Restaurants, long car rides, or waiting rooms are all great places to subitize! If you have fingers, and a bored child, subitize!


cutting vegetables cutting vegetables 1 snacks

Well, this one is almost too easy. If you put six cookies in front of three children and tell them to figure it out…they will. F A I R is a favorite math word that we hear around here. Everyone has to have EQUAL amounts of everything! Every meal we serve has some sort of math discussion available.

I invited the four-year-olds to help set up lunch. When they asked if they could cut the cucumbers, we discovered lots of investigation on size, direction, more, less, and equal.

When it came time to put out the fruits and vegetables, they created sets and counted out tomatoes, cut sandwiches in half. We had a math buzz going on!

Cooking is a great opportunity to bring in math vocabulary and concepts. When cooking with children, we always try to have enough bowls, utensils and, of course eggs, for each child to make their own portion. Think about it, if you watch your friend whip up her award-winning recipe, it’s just not the same as doing it side by side with your own version. This also offers great opportunities for mentoring and scaffolding with their peers on tricks for measuring and cracking eggs. It may not seem like math, but it is. If your body and brain don’t have the energy to deal with the egg mess on any given day, we have been known to cheat with the infants and cracked the egg into the measuring cup. That counts as an egg turn for anyone not old enough to roll her eyes at the thought of it. (Usually your four- year old.)snacks

SMELLsmell dandelion holding an iris

Those little noses often lead us to food. We routinely have

discussions about how many raisins or chocolate chips are in our cookies. We also like to smell in gardens and parks. Did you know that there is a math pattern in nature called Fibonacci? Some refer to Fibonacci as nature’s number system. From the pattern of florets on a flower to the bracts of a pine cone or the leaf arrangements in plants, the same number pattern appears over and over. The basic pattern is 1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… The next number is found by adding up the two numbers before it. It forms a spiral. This is a bit complex for most of the young learners in our program, but we talk about it and the spirals that we see in pineapples, and pinecones and flowers.

bunch of flowers

We often count the number of petals on our flowers. Last summer we planted perennials to our play space and included a number of flowers that include this Fibonacci pattern. Cala lilies have one pedal; euphorbia have two; triilium and some iris have 3 petals; buttercups and columbine have 5; bloodroot have 8, black-eyed Susan’s have 13; shasta daisies have 21 whereas other daisies can be found with 34, 55 or even 89 petals. Isn’t that crazy fun?

spring flowers


baby at fence baby ringing the bellSOUND

We live a block from a college campus and the bell tower. So every hour on the hour we have some counting sound opportunity in our own backyard. Music is an easy way to add math to your outdoor play space.

We have bells placed throughout our play area. We often have obstacle courses that include ringing a bell or drumming on a drum. Music is a big part of our lives. Singing songs, counting rhymes and fingerplays combine music and math. Really is there any better place for those loud drums, bells, tambourines and maracas? What were we thinking? These are outdoor toys!




bells on deck
baby with tamborine children with musical instruments




TOUCHacorns child holding an acorn

When you give children real materials to touch and smell and feel, the learning is deeper and more authentic. There is a major difference between touching real apples and moving them from basket to basket, than counting apples on a worksheet. Looking at stripes and circles on a page is not the same as touching and understanding that each rock has stripes or circle textures or has six shades of green. It makes sense to them. They control it. They aren’t rushed to move on to the next box on the worksheet. Give them real materials.

We talk about blocks and rocks often in our program. Those two things create an unbelievable amount of building. Building is math. We spend hours and hours building things that we may not ever even play in or with. We have spent days making forts. Sometimes, we don’t ever actually play IN them. We just build them. We build zoos, and fairy homes and squirrel traps. It is the building that is the fun, the creativity, and the play. Give your children time to touch, and think and process, and arrange and rearrange. It’s all good.stack of rocks

We also play games where one child plays a rhythm and the other needs to repeat it. There’s very often pattern play going on with this. For many children that rhythm and counting go hand in hand. When we follow singing commands to go in or out, or up and down, around and through, those build spatial awareness and reasoning skills that are important skills for geometry. Everyone is happy when we have music in our lives. Make your own or fire up Pandora!

Have fun this week noticing how often math is in your child’s life. It will make you smile and give you peace to know that you are doing just fine as a parent and an educator. Keep creating math environments and playing with your kids. It’s all quite simple. Put the worksheets away. It will come when their brain development is ready and it is relevant to them. Until then, just watch, listen and smell the learning coming their way!






Straws 1If you had to list three qualities of this manipulative that makes it a great tool for math exploration, what would they be?

I like them because….

1.  They are long.  Children can attach lots of these together to create a “super straw” that spans the length of a room, or at least the length of a table.

2.  They are just flimsy enough.  Sometimes, the lack of strength of a material provides just enough of a challenge to make it interesting.

3.  They are versatile.  Children will find a million and one ways to use this manipulative.

The small joints that hold the straws together are a choking hazard for children under 3, so be sure to check this before investing in these.  However, if you do have some materials in a separate place for older children, these would be a good addition to any math center.

Thursday Theme’s-April Means Weather

Can you guess why I chose “Weather” as our theme for April?  If you have ever lived in Chicago in April, you know from experience, that you might encounter every single kind of weather known to humanity.  It will snow, rain, hail, and sleet. It will be freezing, mild, hot, or scorching.  It will be as humid as Hades and as dry as the Sahara.  Anything is possible when it comes to the weather in Chicago during April.


Weather is in and of itself filled with mathematics.  I finally learned what a negative number was when a teacher used a thermometer to illustrate “Below Zero” as negative numbers.  AHA! I got it!

We measure the weather, we predict the weather,and  we chart/graph the weather. During April we will look at a variety of ways to do all of this with young children.