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Numeracy and literacy: Picture books and numbers


Literacy—the ability to listen, speak, read, and write—has been in the limelight for early care and education professionals for years. Sometimes, however, this focus has minimized other aspects of development like physical strength and balance, social cooperation and problem solving, and emotional self-awareness.


Numeracy—children’s ability to count rationally (not by rote), sort, categorize, manipulate shapes and spaces, and perform simple arithmetic functions—builds a foundation for later abstract and symbolic thinking, and academic success.


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Brain research tells us that cognition—with words and with numbers—and movement are closely linked. When we move our bodies—responding to sensory input, gaining awareness of how our bodies move in space, coordinating our movements meaningfully, and applying movements to deliberate and regulated behaviors—we are literally building stronger neural connections in our brains. Simply, movement makes us more able to meet life’s challenges.
Linking movement with literacy and numeracy can be as easy as choosing a great children’s picture book. Choose books wisely and let them direct you—and children—to art, music, dramatic play, movement, literacy, and numeracy activities.
Almost all the activities included here are appropriate for both indoors and outdoors. Heed the recommendation for daily vigorous physical activity and use activity ideas to inspire and encourage participation.
The books listed here—a combination of old favorites and new publications—are just a starting point. Almost any high-quality children’s picture book promises engaging and instructive math and movement possibilities. As you make up your own activities, don’t forget poetry, nursery rhymes, and song lyrics.


The Doorbell Rang

Sharing cookies becomes a major math lesson as more and more children join the table.

Literacy focus: Story refrain “No one makes cookies like Grandma.”

Math focus: One-to-one correspondence; fewer and more

Literacy activity: Read along

Books with predictable refrains help children recognize word shapes and letter sounds. They also encourage active participation in the reading of the story. Encourage children to read along with you. First, point to each word in the refrain and say each word clearly. Next, have the children read the words with you, pointing to each. Then point to the words and let the children say them alone.

Write each word of the phrase onto individual index cards. Encourage children to copy the words onto their own cards and then to play with the words in and out of order.

Math activity: How many shares?

Gather a small group of children at a table. Place 12 counting bears (or other small manipulatives) on a tray in the middle of the table. Help children brainstorm ways to divide the objects among themselves. Does it work to have everyone take one in turn? What happens if there are five children? If the 12 objects are divided evenly between two children, what happens when two more children join the group? Listen to the children’s solutions and ask questions to expand their understanding of equal shares.


Big Chickens

When a wolf sneaks around the coop, the chickens flee and try to hide from danger. But for the silly chickens, running away is fraught with new dangers that result as four chickens “flurried, hurried, worried, and scurried” from one challenge to the next.

Literacy focus: Rhyming

Math focus: Counting

Literacy activity: Act out the verbs

is rich with action words that beg for interpretation and pantomime. Play with the words. Many rhyme like and—and encourage children to act out the verbs. Challenge the children to add rhyming words to the lists.

Numeracy activity: Explore four

Explore four—four chickens, four children, four adventures. Use a marker to draw four boxes on a large sheet of paper. Challenge children to gather four objects in the environment and to place one in each of the boxes (one-to-one correspondence). Vary the activity for outdoors by drawing with chalk on a sidewalk.

Older children might explore arithmetic functions—addition, subtraction, and multiplication: How many objects do you have if there are two things in each box (4 X 2 = 8)? Point and count aloud to verify the answers.


Oodles of Animals

In classic Ehlert style, colored paper collage is the basic structure of illustrations. These basic shapes—square, rectangle, triangle, circle, diamond, oval, heart, and teardrop combine to picture oodles of animals, each described in short verse.

Literacy focus: Rhyme

Math focus: Geometric shape

Movement activity: Mother May I?

Introduce the classic game using as inspiration. Gather the children in a group (older children in a line) and explain that you will give directions to move like an animal. If you want the game to be competitive for older children, arrange them in two lines. If a child moves without Mother’s permission, that child simply joins the other group and play continues. Include movements like slither like a snail; swoop like an eagle; flit like a moth, strut like a rooster, and hop like a frog, for example.

Math activity: Identify the shape

After you show the page’s illustration and read the short verse, help children dissect the pictures according to basic shapes. Encourage the group to be as descriptive as possible—“I see a large purple circle on the back of the ape. It has smooth lines.” Introduce new words like and Offer shapes to the children and encourage them to build collages of their own animals—and to dictate a short verse to describe the animal or its activities.


The Twelve Dancing Princesses

This retelling of the traditional fairy tale is illustrated in the blazing colors and angular shapes of African art. When the princesses wear out their shoes, night after night, without leaving their bedroom, the baffled king offers a reward to whoever can solve the shoe mystery.

Movement focus: Dancing

Math focus: Counting, matching, attributes, musical beat

Movement activity: Find the beat

Build on Rachel Isadora’s African theme with the rhythm of African drumming. The groups, African Drums and Soukouss Ta, have vocal-less recordings of authentic tribal drumming available at stores and libraries and from iTunes. Let children first listen to the music, then sway to the music while seated, and finally dance to the music. Talk about the book’s illustrations of the dancing princesses and challenge the children to move as they imagine the princesses moving.

Math activity: Sorting by attribute

Gather counters or other manipulatives of one sort but with different attributes. For example, buttons of different sizes and colors and with either two or four holes. Ask the children in the group to each choose one button, to examine it carefully, and to hold it up for the other children to see while describing its attributes—a big, red button with four holes, for example. Give children time to sort the buttons by attribute and to discover that some buttons share attributes without being identical. Ask: “Are there any identical buttons? Are there any pairs?”


To Market, To Market

A reinterpretation of the nursery rhyme embellished with zany illustrations follows a shopper who settles for a simple meal of hot soup.

Movement focus: Balance, strength, stamina

Math focus: Counting

Movement activity: How many can you carry?

Let children test balance, strength, and stamina with an armful of stuffed animals. How many can each child hold on to while walking across the room? Increase the challenge by having children walk along a line of tape on the floor or a balance beam.

Math activity: Animal round up

Take the time to both read the book with children and then to slowly examine each of the illustrations. Encourage children to count the different animals on each page, pointing, naming, and counting one by one. Do the same with the soup ingredients at the end of the book. Take the opportunity to have a conversation about the different vegetables and the characteristics of each.


Hardworking Puppies

Ten puppies have big dreams—they want to be dogs with jobs like guarding, rescuing, and performing. Each finds a job and a hardworking human to help.

Literacy focus: Reading illustrations

Math focus: Counting, one-to-one correspondence, and arithmetic functions (subtraction)

Literacy activity: Knowing about dogs

Share the book first by looking at the pictures without reading the words. Encourage the children to talk about what they see, increasing vocabulary, using descriptive words, and recognizing how pictures tell an important part of the story.

Service dogs provide invaluable services under the guidance of their human handlers. Dogs can be trained for water rescue, to guide a blind or visually impaired person across a street, to console and comfort someone in a nursing home, to perform security searches at airports, and to guard property, for example. Help children recognize the different functions dogs provide—companionship, protection, and assistance—and explore the important ways people rely on their pets and service animals.

Math activity: One less

Encourage children to associate numerals with numbers of objects. With a marker, clearly write numerals from 1 to 10 in the center of 10 cards. In the lower left-hand corner, write out the word, or, for example. On the reverse side of each card draw boxes that correspond to the numeral—10, , and 10 boxes, for example. Laminate the cards for use in multiple activities. Let children copy the number words, encourage them to make one-to-one correspondences, and to practice arithmetic skills like adding one or taking two away.


Counting Crocodiles

A monkey is stuck on an island with only a lemon tree. Way across the Sillabobble Sea is a delectable banana tree. But the Sillabobble crocodiles, eager for a tasty lunch, challenge the monkey to count the crocs.

Movement focus: Hopping, skipping, balancing on one leg

Math focus: Counting

Movement activity: Monkey movement

With a marker, label sheets of lineless paper with rebus diagrams and words describing body movements like and so forth and two additional papers, one with a picture of a lemon, and one with a banana. Tape the sheets to the floor—order doesn’t matter—but tape the lemon picture at the start and the banana picture at the finish. Gather a small group of children and encourage them to move along the path using the monkey movements. Use a signal to encourage the monkeys to move forward toward the banana prize.

Math activity: Describe what you see

The illustrations in are soft and detailed, making pointing and counting a challenge. But each page offers several numeracy options. For example, one page illustrates “Eight crocs in polka-dot socks.” With the children you can count tails (8), pairs of socks (8) individual socks (16) as well as describing and talking about other details including the monkey’s companions, a fox and a snail.


Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

Bedtime means saying “Goodnight” and then having a jumping party—until the doctor comes—and then doing it again!

Movement focus: Small and large motor control

Math focus: Arithmetic function (subtraction), ordering

Movement activity: Jumping with all your muscles

Children will readily jump up and down but movement skill requires precision, balance, and control of both large and small muscles. After sharing the book, recite the finger play with the children focusing on finger and hand muscles. Focus on further control by teaching children how control their bodies to fall safely, as athletes do. Teach the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles and challenge children to lower themselves to the ground with relaxed muscles. Help them identify the center of gravity in their bodies so they fall to the floor landing on their back side (on padded hips) rather than face down. And teach them to stretch their arms overhead during a fall so they don’t try to stop the fall with a wrist or arm and risk breaking or straining it.

Math activity: Size order

In most families, children are different sizes. Build an ordering activity with five figures or objects and encourage children to talk about the difference as they order from smallest to largest. Vary the activity with weight—ordering from heaviest to lightest.


Caps for Sale

Mischievous monkeys take advantage of a peddler’s nap, steal his hats, and mime his hard work.

Movement focus: Balance

Math focus: Counting money

Movement activity: Bean bag balance

Provide a collection of bean bags, one for each child. Challenge children to walk with a bean bag balanced on their head. Increase the difficulty by asking the children to sit and then stand, to squat, to tip-toe, to stand on one leg, and to turn around without letting the bean bag slip away. Ask the children why they think caps might be easier to balance than bean bags.

Math activity: 50 cents

Use this activity only with children who won’t put coins in their mouths. Bring a collection of coins: 50 pennies, 10 nickels, 5 dimes, 2 quarters, and 1 50-cent piece. Work with the children to find out what they already know about (10 pennies equal 1 dime, for example) and the sizes, shapes, and images on U.S. coins. Build on children’s knowledge by attaching price tags to a few classroom toys (plastic fruit from the dramatic play center, for example) and helping children determine how many coins the purchase of each item requires.


One Too Many

This simple barnyard counting book is enlivened by the hopping flea that finds itself making mischief as new animals arrive on the scene. Each spread features a numeral but no other text.

Movement focus: Four-legged movement

Math focus: Counting

Movement activity: Animal walk

Most barnyard animals walk on four legs—a challenge for two-legged humans. Children typically find this easier than adults—they start out closer to the ground. But for all mammals the practice can improve stamina, balance, and muscle control. Use an animal walk for transitions—from indoors to the playground, for example. Vary the animal and encourage children to move with the subtle variations as they gain experience—cows, horses, goats, pigs, and sheep have unique movements to copy.

Math activity: Can you count them?

is a cacophony of animals—and most are illustrated in black and white. While working one-on-one with a child, try to count the animals by type—a real challenge. Help the child identify the animals that walk on two legs, and follow the silver hopping line of the tiny flea.