Focus on Attributes!

posted by Dr. Bilge Cerezci

As she sits on the floor, a three-year old starts stacking blocks with various shapes and sizes. After some experimentation, she realizes that it is hard to build a tower if a block lays on its curvy side.


What does this 3-year-old discover about shapes?

From an early age, young children notice different shapes have different characteristics, even if they don’t know their names yet. They realize that some shapes have points while others have none. They also discover some shapes have flat sides while others don’t. Traditionally, we teach children the names of basic two-dimensional shapes: circle, square, triangle and rectangle and assume that being able to name these shapes indicates a higher level of geometrical understanding. Unfortunately, this can be any further from the truth. In reality, young children need your help to focus on attributes of shapes rather than overall appearance. For example, as you build a block tower together, encourage your child to pay attention to defining attributes of the each shape you are using. You might say, “I see you are stacking up the blocks that have flat sides. Look, all of its sides are flat. How is this one (i.e., cube) different that this one (i.e, half circle block)?” As you continue with the activity, encourage your child to use her fingers to trace and feel the shape. Give them a plenty of time to feel the shapes, count the sides and even ask them to find an item in your home to that resembles that shape.

As children manipulate various three-dimensional shapes, they will eventually build deeper understanding geometrical shapes such as flat faces of solid (three-dimensional) shapes are two-dimensional shapes.

There are many ways to encourage and help your child to learn about shapes. Here are some of the games you might play with your children at home:

* Drawing shapes in sand or foamshapes in shaving cream

* Walking around shapes drawn or taped on ground

shapes on the floor

* Making shapes with bodiesbodies making shapes

Shapes are all around us and it is easy to play games like these at home, outside and elsewhere. Most importantly, make sure to have fun while doing it.

We use dice to count, don’t we?

Last week, when I wrote about math opportunities in everyday occurrences, I was reminded of a classroom teacher I observed about a year ago.  She was busy playing with one child at a long table.  They had 2 large foam die and were taking turns tossing them across the table.

Big Foam Dice

Each time they tossed the dice, the teach tried diligently to get the child to recognize and name the numbers.  She used her best teacher voice saying things like, “Ooooh, what number is that?  Can you count to 4?  Are the number the same?  Are they different?”  Not once did the child respond to her prompts.  He didn’t even look up or acknowledge her attempts at engaging him in the numbers.

I watched this interaction for a little while longer and came to the following conclusion:

The teacher was wasting her time and energy focusing on what she thought was important when using dice as a manipulative rather than observing the child and following his lead to uncover what he thought was important about the dice. 

If the teacher had been paying closer attention to the child’s cues, she would have noticed that he wasn’t rolling the dice to see which numbers came up.  He was rolling the dice to see how close he could get them to travel without falling off the edge of the table.  His game was about space and distance, about near and far, about staying on and not falling off.  His engagement with the dice was intense and exciting.  His game had rules and was fun.  His game didn’t include a relentless string of questions with right and wrong answers.

If the teacher had been paying closer attention she would have seen an opportunity for an authentic interaction between the two of them based on the genuine interests of the child.  She would have found many opportunities to encourage mathematical thinking, spatial recognition and math vocabulary.

Math opportunities exist in all areas of the early childhood classroom and in all sorts of adult-child interactions.  Playing with dice may seem like a super obvious example of an “opportunity” to explore number with a young child.  However, the obvious is not always the best choice.  Follow the child’s lead.  It may take you somewhere far more interesting.

Toys That Encourage Problem-Solving

We have old friends who taught us a lot about parenting.  When their children were really little (3 and under) they would go into their bedrooms, the basement,or  the playroom, and find toys that they never played with or forgot about and rewrapped them so they had something to open on their birthdays or holidays.  Their reasoning was that their children were far more interested in the boxes that the presents came in than the presents themselves.  They also liked the colorful paper and ribbons, but it was really all about the boxes.

I imagine that some of you have had this same experience.  Not only do young children love boxes, they love laundry baskets, Tupperware, kitchen spoons and spatulas, a roll of toilet paper, and the Sunday paper.  You might go out and spend a whole lot of money on a set of Duplos, but when it comes right down to it, your child (ren) may be just as interested in building a pile of spoons from the kitchen drawer as they are in building a pile of Duplos.

Children are natural-born problem solvers.  Boxes present so many challenges for the young child.  Can I climb into it?  Can I stand on top of it?  Can I crawl through it?  Can somebody find me if I hide in it?  What happens when I push it down the stairs?  What happens when I put my stuffed animal into it and then push it down the stairs?  These questions and so many others come with a large empty box.  These are not questions that adults have put forth.  They are questions that arise organically from the child’s open-ended play.  There are no directions that come with the box, and nobody is asking the child to do something or make something out of it.  There is no “right” way to play with a box.  It just is.Spoons

Open-ended, found materials encourage problem solving.  That is not to say that store-bought toys do not; they do of course.  However, there is so much opportunity for discovery in the mundane.  How many hours did my oldest child spend in front of the Tupperware cabinet? He pulled them out, stuffed them back in, matched the lids with the bottoms, used the tops as frisbees, stacked them tall and knocked them over.  All of this occurred without any direction from an adult.  He solved his own problems by manipulating and playing with these materials for hours on end.  If he couldn’t find a lid, he put that piece into a bigger container one and closed it inside with a bigger lid. He figured out which ones made the most noise when banging on it with a wooden spoon.  He discovered that he could put them at various distances across the kitchen floor and jump from one to another, like stepping-stones. He played pretend, he played with space and shape, he played with number, and he played with gusto.

Next time you hear a rumor that someone you know is having a refrigerator or washing machine delivered, do everything you can to get that box that it came it.  Your children will uncover all sorts of problems with it and then they will work very, very hard to solve them.


Shape Scavenger Hunt

Turning an ordinary activity like “Find a Shape” into a game like “Shape Scavenger Hunt” is pretty easy to do, and much more fun for children to engage in.  Frequently, while visiting centers, I hear teachers ask the children, “Who can find something in our room that is a circle?” or “Who can find something red?”  The children look around, everyone raises their hands, one child gets called on, and then he tries to find something that fits the criteria.  Usually, everyone raises their hands because they want a turn, more than they know the answer.  This is the usual course of events.

It is far more interesting to create a very simple chart for each child, clip the charts to clipboards (I LOVE clipboards, so each child can work on his/her own), tie a good pen or felt tip marker to the clipboard and then have the children look for items from their charts.  It could look like this:

Shape scavenger hunt

Each child could take his/her clipboard and find something in the room that is either this shape, or with this shape on it.  They could draw what they find on their charts and then tell the group what they found. If adding color confuses them, then be sure to leave it out.  If you want to add the dimension of color so that each item has 2 attributes; i.e.; red squares, yellow circles, etc. then be sure to explain that as well.

You might add another dimension to this by adding numbers.Shape scavenger hunt with number

There are very clear messages on this chart.  The first message says, “Find 2 rectangles.”  The second says, ” Find 3 circles,” and the thirds says, “Find 1 triangle.”  Before you have the children set off on their scavenger hunts, be sure that they can “read” their charts.  Explain that there is a space for each item they find and they can draw their items in the chart when they find them.

Use these to determine how the children in your group are identifying their shapes, recognizing numerals, and following directions.  Have fun with scavenger hunts.  The more the children get used to this format, the more they will enjoy it.


Legos and Play

I’ve written about Legos several times over the past couple of years simply because they are one of my favorite children’s toys.  On Friday, I posted a special message from the Lego Company that was included in the first set of Legos sold in the early 70s.  This message just reaffirmed my adoration for these multifaceted building blocks.

Imagine my joy when I observed this child on Friday.

photo (40)

He was so busy playing with this basket of Legos.  He began with the base and systematically began sorting through the pieces to find the ones that would form the walls.

photo (39)

He built and (38)And the walls grew taller.

photo (37)

At first he told me that he was building a house and then it was the Target.  He had all sorts of ideas about what he needed to make it really big and super tall. He worked on his structure all through free play, which lasted well over an hour.  In that time he persevered, worked hard, planned and set goals, engaged with others, held meaningful conversations, and overcame obstacles.

Yep, Legos are cool and play is great.


Observation at the Heart of Good Assessment

In The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching, Deb Curtis and Margie Carter have written a wonderfully insightful and really useful book about the value of observation in the early childhood classroom.  Today, I want to focus on the idea that good observation is a practiced skill and good observers know that everything we see is interpreted through our own personal lenses.

Chapter 2 begins with a quote by Lisa Delpit, author of Other People’s Children.

We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs.  To put our beliefs on hold is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment.

Think for a moment about a time when you observed a child do or say something that excited you, annoyed you, enthralled you, or worried you.  Consider why you reacted as you did.  Was it because the behavior was undesirable or desirable?  Where do these desires come from? Generally, what we want from children coincides with our own value systems and our own desires for our own children.  If a young child shows interest in reading, and early reading is a coveted skill in your culture, you will be thrilled by this.  You may even make a “big deal” out of this desirable quality.  However, if a young child is far more interested in playing Power Rangers, complete with karate chopping and knocking things over, as you observe this play you may not appreciate it as a valuable vehicle for social development for those children because it doesn’t coincide with your personal attitudes and beliefs about the role of play.

Now take both of these scenarios and consider how the act of observation is affected by your personal feelings.  We teach that all observations should be purely objective – but even if the words that are written down are as objective as possible, the interpretation of the observations will be slanted toward your personal feelings about those observations.  Becoming aware of our own biases, slants, desires, hopes and dreams for children will help neutralize some of these inconsistencies in observation.  That, in turn, will provide the backdrop for more fair and less biased assessments of children.