Discovering the math in mittens

McCormick Math Minute: Discover foundational mathematics for young children — in 60 seconds or less

Olivia Trevino’s preschool class at John L. Marsh Elementary School, a Chicago Public School on the city’s far southeast side, took advantage of the winter weather to explore picture books about mittens. Along the way, they learned important math lessons about sets, patterns, and data analysis.

[img_caption src=”×150.jpg” align=”right” alt=”Mittens with geometric shapes”]The Mitten by Jim Aylesworth and The Mitten by Alvin Tresselt are two versions of the classic folk tale about a group of animals that try to squeeze into a boy’s lost mitten.

Other children’s books, including One Mitten by Kristine O’Connell George, The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen, and Missing Mittens by Stuart J. Murphy, also play with the idea that mittens come in pairs.

Math in mittens

All these mitten stories can inspire a lot of mitten math.

At Marsh Elementary, the preschoolers began with a question: does our class have more gloves or mittens? To find the answer, they followed a simple data analysis process. The children did a binary sort, dividing their handwear into a set of mittens and a set of gloves. They then counted how many were in each set and used their data to make a bar graph answering the question.

The next day the children found that the same collection of gloves and mittens could be sorted in many other ways. All they had to do was to change which attribute they used. The children sorted the handwear based by size, then re-sorted the gloves and mittens based on whether or not they had stripes. They also used their mittens and gloves to make repeating patterns on the rug. Later, they used paper mittens to create patterns that they could glue down.

Patterns are an important part of foundational math, as children who understand patterns begin to recognize and predict repetition and regularity, which exists in math and in the world.

Lessons learned

“Starting with interesting stories and using the mittens and gloves they wear every day really engaged the students,” reflects Trevino.

Math is meaningful when it connects to children’s lives — in this case, their own mittens and gloves.

The Erikson Early Math Collaborative, launched with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, works with teachers to bring foundational mathematics to the early childhood classroom. Learn more at