Math Story Time

"Run, fat rabbits! Run, run, run! That fox wants to eat you, one by one! Dinnertime!"

Children lean forward on the floor of Bothell Library, enthralled as children's librarian Mie-Mie Wu brings to life Sue Williams' tale of a hungry fox on the prowl.

After singing a counting song and listening to Wu read Eve Merriam's "12 Ways to Get to 11," the children are joined on the floor by their parents. Together, children and parents cut out pictures of rabbits and then group them in different ways to add up to 11.

Wu, a children's librarian for 17 years, understands how an engaging story can capture the interest of a young child.

"When you read aloud a good story to children, you're getting a response," Wu said. "There's humor, there's rhyme and rhythm and narrative suspense so children are eagerly anticipating what comes next."

A new University of Washington project is tapping the power of storytelling to get children thinking and talking about math and science in everyday life.

"We want to support young learners in finding joy and wonder from mathematics and science," said Allison Hintz, an assistant professor of education studies at University of Washington Bothell who is helping lead the Partnerships for Early Learning (PEL) project.

Hintz, along with UW Bothell Associate Professor of Educational Studies Antony Smith and the UW College of Education's INSPIRE initiative, are collaborating with Highline School District, King County Library System and the YMCA Powerful Schools program through the Boeing Corporation-funded project. The partnership's goal is to connect math, science and literacy through storytelling in integrated and meaningful ways.

"Nearly all stories offer mathematical potential," Hintz said. "When we approach a story with a mathematical lens, it can open up opportunities to understand the story more deeply."

In "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," for example, an understanding of counting helps children see that the caterpillar consumes a large amount of food before going into its cocoon and transforming into a butterfly.

"There's tremendous potential in this well-loved children's story to think mathematically," Hintz said. "We're working toward a broader understanding of what counts as mathematics. We want to help bring out the mathematics in the everyday world through children's literature."

Over the past year, the partnership team has designed, piloted and refined learning resource kits that present math and science concepts through storytelling activities such as Wu's weekly read alouds at Bothell Public Library.

The team selects books that have an engaging story and also offer meaningful science, math and literacy concepts around the themes of water, food and plants. For each book, the toolkits include a guide for teachers, parents and other educators on the math and science concepts that are present and highlight opportunities to pause during read alouds and talk with children about those concepts.

Many teachers and parents are already comfortable with the practice of shared reading experiences focused on literacy development, Hintz said. The PEL project aims to support them in gaining a similar comfort level for engaging children in lively discussions about math and science within the context of exploring books.

"The guides are not a curriculum but a way of thinking about how teachers and parents can bring mathematics and science to life through children's books," Hintz said.

Math and Science Story Time

During the coming year, PEL will implement the learning toolkits more broadly in King County libraries, Highline Public Schools and YMCA and continue refinements based on feedback from educators and parents. The research team also will assess both children's and educators' learning.

“PEL is an example of the kind of collaboration between practitioners and researchers that INSPIRE is trying to foster," said Elham Kazemi, INSPIRE director and Geda and Phil Condit Professor in Math and Science Education. "Everyone has expertise to offer, and we can design better educational resources when we create, try out and revise ideas together.”

As the project continues to develop, Wu is excited about how storytelling can connect with children's inherent curiosity.

"Math and science are about discovery, mistakes and trials," Wu said. "I think we have a powerful opportunity to see children connect math and science to their world and know it's not something that's just done on a worksheet."


Allison Hintz, Assistant Professor of Education Studies

Elham Kazemi, Geda and Phil Condit Professor in Math and Science Education

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications