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An Integrated Approach for Young Students

by Kathy Owens
January 2001

young students First- and second-grade students are very enthusiastic about learning mathematics when activities are integrated into thematic units. Even in the early grades, they understand that numbers help them make sense of the world, and I reap the benefits of working with motivated students.

Measuring, organizing data, and graphing activities are mathematical concepts that can easily be integrated into most units; money and time concepts can be incorporated whenever possible. However, simply measuring a length or drawing a graph does not make a thematic unit a mathematical lesson. In thematic units in my class, the students have opportunities to pose problems for their peers to solve. This process develops reading and writing skills while reinforcing mathematical concepts.

To avoid the frustration associated with too much writing in the early grades, I occasionally give students problem starters to make them think. After analyzing specific data with my students, I design a fill-in-the blank problem for them to complete and solve. For example, students use an animal-speed data chart to fill in the blanks and solve the following problem:


How much faster can a _________ run than a ____________?

I encourage creative writing and multistep solutions for students who are motivated to write complex problems. The following problem was created by a student:


A cheetah named Speedy runs 70 miles an hour. His friend, Sam, the hyena, lives 210 miles away. Speedy started on a trip to visit Sam at 2 PM What time did he get to Sam's house?

Mathematics activities are integrated into all units in my class. The following list describes problems and activities that students address in a thematic unit on birds.

  1. Students invent recipes for bird treats and mix the ingredients to create different combinations. An example of an activity is "Use 1/2-cup and 1/4-cup measures of various seeds, mix with suet, wrap in plastic, freeze, and hang outside. Write your recipes using fractions."
  2. After studying data, students make graphs to illustrate birds' weights, wingspans, egg sizes, wing beats per second, distances traveled during migration, flying speeds, and so on.
  3. Students measure and compare students' arm spans to birds' wingspans.
  4. Students write word problems using data from problem 2. They share their problems with other students in the class.
  5. Students count and record the total number of birds visiting the school grounds. They make a pie graph to illustrate each species as a part of the whole.
  6. Students visit a local bird store. They then set up in the classroom a mock bird store, where bird food and products can be bought and sold.
  7. Students visit a local pet store and compare prices for various birds. They are challenged by such questions as, How much more does a parrot cost than a finch?
  8. Students design and, if possible, construct bird feeders or birdhouses. They use metric measurements and determine the surface area of the completed structures.
  9. Students illustrate or graph egg weights. How many chicken eggs equal one ostrich egg? How many chicken eggs equal one elephant bird egg?

In addition to motivating students and reinforcing mathematics, integrated activities are an excellent tool for assessing students' understanding of mathematics. And last, but not least, the colorful projects generated by students look beautiful on the classroom walls.


Kathy Owens teaches a first-and-second-grade combination class at Sussex School in Missoula, Montana. She is enjoying her twentieth year of teaching at Sussex. 



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