Icebergs to inches: The math of penguins

This article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Erikson on Children.
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McCormick Math Minute: Discover foundational mathematics for young children — in 60 seconds or less

Laura Miller and her preschoolers at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy in Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood read Penguins! by Anne Schreiber. The children wondered, “Are we taller or shorter than an emperor penguin?”

Image: Children learning relative size with penguins

With that, they began their exploration of linear measurement and comparative size.

Penguins! states that the average height of an emperor penguin is about 44 inches. Using a measuring tape, the students marked that height on butcher paper taped to the wall. They then worked together to ensure that a penguin shadow — created by an overhead projector and toy penguin — matched the mark.

Along the way, the students visually compared the height of the shadow to the mark on the butcher paper, saying, “We have to make it bigger” and “Not that big!” They then compared their own heights to the penguin’s shadow, saying,“I am the same size as the penguin” or “I am a little bit taller.”

Miller asked her students, “How else can we measure the penguin?” “Books!” said one student. But the class soon realized that books weren’t all the same size, which made measuring with them difficult.

Another student said, “We can use blocks; they’re the same size!” Stacking the classroom’s blocks showed that eight rectangle
blocks or 16 square blocks equal an average penguin’s height. A student even pointed out that the number of squares is double that of rectangles, as two squares equal a rectangle.

Penguins — and a thoughtful teacher — had given the students a greater understanding of key concepts in foundational mathematics.

The Erikson Early Mathematics Education Project, launched with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, works with teachers to bring foundational mathematics to the early childhood classroom. More than 250 teachers have participated in the program to date.