Learning about shapes, with tips from a special education teacher

Working in a school with teachers who have a different expertise than I have means I have access to an informal professional learning community’s broader depth of knowledge. Early childhood teachers represent a wide variety of cultures, ages and educational backgrounds. This variety is a strength when we learn from each other.

Sara Fritel Johnson is an early childhood educator with graduate degrees in early childhood special education and reading. She has worked extensively with public and private school children ages 2 to 8 years old. I asked her how I can best support all children’s learning when I model teaching science activities, such as the one on the movement of 3-D geometric shapes in the January issue of Science and Children, and she agreed to be a guest on this blog in interview form. Welcome Sara!

Peggy: When introducing preschoolers to new vocabulary words such as names for geometric shapes, are there any tips for helping children master the pronunciation and remembering the names?

Child holds two geometric shapes.Sara: Using a multi-sensory approach will help all children. You can use visuals, real materials, whole body movement or smaller movements to help them remember new vocabulary words being taught. I think it is especially important to let them handle the materials – not just watch you as the teacher handling the materials. For example, when you are reading a book, the children can be holding shapes and when you come across “their” shape, they can hold it up or bring it to you.

Peggy: How can we help children who have fine motor difficulty manipulating ramps and rolling objects, or using scissors, participate in these activities?

Child puts a column and a cube on a tray, and tilts it to make the shapes move.Sara: When manipulating ramps and rolling objects, some children can be accommodated by using larger balls (e.g. golf ball instead of marble or 4 inch ball instead of golf ball). If they are having difficulty manipulating ramps, you could hold one end while they hold the other. You could also have children describe how they want them placed and then put them in place using hand over hand assistance (your hand over their hand).

Teacher holds a leaf while a child cuts it with scissors.When using scissors, if children are having a difficult time snipping paper, you can verbally prompt them “open, close; open, close.” You can also give them hand over hand assistance for this. If they are able to cut, but are having difficulty staying on a line, you can help hold the paper, so they can focus on cutting instead of having to focus on holding and cutting. Eventually, they will be able to use both hands – one for cutting and one to hold the paper.

Peggy: What are some general ways teachers can to check ourselves to ensure we are meeting the diverse needs of all the children in our classrooms?

Teacher guides a child using scissors.Sara: Ask yourself – Are all the children participating and are they engaged/having fun? If the answer is “yes,” then their needs are most likely being met. If the answer is “no,” chances are you need to reflect on your lesson and possibly talk to students to see what you can do to support their learning. Sometimes asking students, “How can I help you?” opens up the conversation for them to tell you with what they might be struggling. For example, if you are working on a cutting activity and one student is just sitting there, asking them how you can help will give them the opportunity to say what is difficult for them. If students don’t respond, I usually say, “Let me show you how we can do this,” and then give them hand over hand assistance and give them more independence as they demonstrate more confidence. If the activity is more open ended, I try to get the activity started and then encourage them to try. For example, I might say, “I am going to place a ramp here, where would you like to place the next ramp?”

Peggy: Do you have any suggestions or resources for teachers?

Sara: Having developmentally appropriate expectations for each student is essential. 

Occupational therapist and trainer Dr. Marianne Gibbs’ website, Write Out of the Box, offers developmentally appropriate information on fine motor skills. (Check out the Tips and Teacher Feature pages!) Dr. Gibb’s Handy Handout for Parents, is also an EXCELLENT resource for teachers, about building fine motor skills that will later support handwriting. 

Children’s singer-songwriter Nancy Stewart has a fun song and game to play that could go along with the January 2014 Early Years column activity. You could change the words as you teach different shapes, from “rectangles, triangles, circles and squares” to “rectangular prisms, cylinders and cubes.” 

Peggy: Thank you Sara, for this information and for being a resource for all the teachers you work with.

I appreciate Sara’s help in recognizing the diversity of student needs in the classroom. “Promoting meaningful and inclusive participation of individuals with exceptionalities in their schools and communities” is an ethical principle for all teachers who work with children with exceptionalities, stated by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Many shapes of blocks used together to build a tower.As the children and I work with three-dimensional shapes, I remind myself that it takes time to become familiar with any new vocabulary word. Teachers and children may stumble over the words “triangular prism” because they have always said “triangle block” to identify that shape. Posting pictures the geometric shapes along with their names helps readers remember the name and non-readers can refer to a picture.

Here are a few suggestions for teacher resources—books and internet sites—with information and activities to engage children in working in three-dimensions:

Books

Building Structures with Young Children (Young Scientist Series) by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth. 2004. Redleaf Press.

More than Magnets : Exploring the Wonders of Science in Preschool and Kindergarten by Sally Moomaw and Brenda Hieronymus. 1997. Redleaf Press.

Thinking BIG, Learning BIG: Connecting Science, Math, Literacy, and Language in Early Childhood by Marie Faust Evitt, Tim Dobbins, and Bobbi Weesen-Baer. 2009. Gryphon House.

Internet

The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s position statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP),   and a summary of three core considerations of DAP.

Description of how learning about geometry begins in early childhood. Clements,Douglas H. “Your Child’s Geometric World” Investigations in Number, Data and Space, TERC.

Look at these photos with children to get inspiration for building. Mississippi Heritage Trust. 2008. Geometric Shapes in Architecture. 

Visit this site to see names and illustrations of 3-D shapes. Pierce, Rod. “Geometry” Math Is Fun. Ed. Rod Pierce. 6 Sep 2013. 5 Oct 2013

Cover of the NSTA elementary journal, Science and ChildrenThe Early Years column in the January 2014 issue of Science and Children, Shape Exploration-Another Dimension.

Sara also shared a game that is a favorite of the children she teaches, “Shape Monster”. The Shape Monster poem is online from several sources as a class book or game. Sara makes shapes – circles, squares, triangles, rectangles in different colors (red, blue, yellow and green) and sizes (big/little). In a 3-D version, the shapes could be balls, blocks, and other geometric shapes. Each child gets a shape or two and then they listen for their shape to be called. The teacher says,

Shape Monster, Shape Monster, munch, munch, munch.

How about a [name of shape] for your lunch?

Each child that has the named shape then gets up and “feeds” the shape monster their shape. The Shape Monster can be a large drawing of a monster face with a wide open mouth, or the children can build a shape monster as they decide where to place their shapes in the center of the circle.

This activity can be differentiated by asking for:

  • just a color. (How about a yellow shape for your lunch?)
  • just a shape. (How about a triangle for your lunch?)
  • just a size. (How about a big shape for your lunch?)
  • size and shape. (How about a big circle for your lunch?)
  • size, shape, and color. (How about a small, red circle for your lunch?)
  • two dimensional (flat) shapes or three dimensional geometric shapes. (How about a sphere for your lunch?)

A fun way to be sure all children are included while learning about three dimensional shapes!

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One Comment

  1. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted January 26, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Here’s another resource for exploring both two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes:
    “So Many Shapes! (A Spot-it, Learn-it Challenge Book)” by Sarah L. Schuette (Capstone 2014) hides shapes in plain view in busy photographs of familiar early childhood scenes. There is a page showing play dough, one with currency and pages with pet and space toys. Three-dimensional cylinders are introduced on the third layout. It will be up to you to explain the concept of dimensions but Schuette’s pairing of vocabulary, “baseball sphere,” smoothly introduces new words. Geometric shape names and commonly used shape names are mixed on each 2-page spread: sphere and square along with star and diamond. This mixture may confuse children who are learning that a diamond is called a “rhombus” in geometry but it represents the mixture in everyday life. Children who enjoy the “I Spy” books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick will like “So Many Shapes!” It is a good activity book for a teacher and two or three children to use following a hands-on introduction to 2-D and 3-D shapes.

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