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Tool-Time Math

Guest blogger: Diann Gano, M.Ed.


“Miss Diann, I need a hammer! Look! Look! See? I need a hammer!”

Three-year-old fix-it man Jonathan is pointing to a loose wagon screw that needs his immediate attention. We turn the wagon on its side to take a closer look at the wheel. Yes! We definitely have a loose screw.

“You need a hammer to pound it in?” I ask.

“Yes!” exclaims Jonathan.

I return with a hammer and Jonathan immediately recognizes that I have made a huge mistake. “No, not that one! I need a hammer! Look, it has a line. I need a hammer to fit in there to make it tight.”

This was not Jonathan’s first rodeo. He knew his way around a tool bench, just not by name.

“Oh, let me look again,” I reply.

I return with three tools. “Jonathan, I have a hammer, a screwdriver and a wrench. Will one of these work?”

Jonathan’s eyes light up. “Yes, I need a screwdriver!” He jumps with joy and gets straight to work.

My little friend is a math machine. This is logical mathematical thinking! We have deductive reasoning and problem-solving at a three-year-old pace. Having the vocabulary to explain that he needed a tool that would fit in that “line” demonstrated that he could imagine the type of tool that he needed.

Early scenarios like this will deepen Jonathan’s understanding of how objects fit together. This is exploring spatial relationships. This is fine-motor skill development, relationship building and spatial reasoning—all at the same time.

Jonathan’s spark of excitement ignites the interest of his friend, Harrison, who joins in. Harrison is also in need of a screwdriver because he has decided that the screws on every bicycle and wagon in the yard need a good tightening.

As Harrison and Jonathan discuss their actions, their understanding of spatial relationships and attributes about shapes, size and measurement deepens. High-quality hands-on experiences like these provide opportunities for children to develop a richer vocabulary as they reason out loud: “My screwdriver isn’t working. No, you need to turn it this way! Look, it’s going down!”

Children learn to understand and use information when they have direct contact with materials. Drawing a line from a hammer to a nail on a worksheet does not give our children the same educational benefits as an actual hands-on learning experience.

When children explore the different ways that they can manipulate materials—by rotating them, cutting them in half or transforming them into different shapes by composing or decomposing them—they are learning how materials relate to one another and the space around them. Working with real tools and materials is critical to fostering children’s understanding of spatial relationships. This is math. This is our foundation. I think you should check your wagon and see if that left wheel “needs tightening.” Don’t forget to document and check this off of your list of learning standards! Take your young friends outdoors. The math curriculum? It’s already “pre-loaded” into the activity!


Diann Gano, M.Ed.

Diann Gano—who opened her family child care program, Under the Gingko Tree in 1986—has long believed that "the earth gives us what we need to learn" and that nature is "the perfect environment for little brains to grow and learn in every day." While conducting research for her master’s thesis on outdoor learning in early childhood settings, she learned about the Nature Explore Classroom Certification Program, which recognizes schools and other organizations that have made a commitment to providing outdoor classrooms and comprehensive programming to help children use the natural world as an integral part of learning. She enrolled in the Nature Explore Classroom certification program after completing her master’s degree in 2010, and Under the Ginkgo Tree was certified as a Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom Program in 2011. A member of the Erikson Family Child Care Portal Project Advisory Board, Gano has also participated in the Erikson Institute’s Early Childhood Leadership Summit and served as a webinar panelist for Town Square Illinois, an online resource and professional development tool for home-based providers. She has presented at the local, state and national levels on topics such as indoor and outdoor learning environments, the importance of loose parts in early math education and the impact of immersion in the natural world on brain development in young children. In 2016, Gano was honored as a recipient of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care Innovator Award for creating a school environment that inspires children to become more active and engaged learners. In May 2019, she received the prestigious Terri Lynn Lokoff/Children’s Tylenol National Teacher Award, which honors 50 outstanding early child care professionals across the nation each year for making a lasting difference in the lives of the children they serve and setting them on a path to success in school and in life. She received her BS in liberal arts from Western Illinois University and her MEd in education from St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.

Read more posts by Diann Gano, M.Ed.

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