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Penguins=Math in Action

One of our Primary (combined Kindergarten and Grade 1) classrooms recently started a new unit about penguins that lasts for several weeks. Taking a thematic approach to elementary learning is a vehicle for teaching all subject areas in a hands-on and active way. This also helps our faculty differentiate ways for our students to learn.

Measuring with Unifix cubes

Measuring with Unifix cubes


After kicking things off by discussing what makes a penguin a penguin (characteristics such as: dark backs, white bellies, webbed feet/claws, beak, eye, tail, flippers.), what characteristics all penguins have in common, learning about the specific types of penguins and more, the students tackled a big question, “Are you taller than an Emperor Penguin?”

The class started out by looking at the average height of these penguins (48 inches for an adult), then discussed the concept of “average”.  (What does the idea of average mean? Will every penguin of a specific type be the exact same size?)  

Taller than an Emperor Penguin?

Taller than an Emperor Penguin?

Students used yardsticks to see how tall each penguin would be based on the information they read.  Then they cut a ribbon the same length as the penguin’s height. Next, the children measured the ribbon with Unifix cubes to see how tall the penguin would be using a different standard of measurement.

Helping Math Language and Concepts Take Hold

Underlying all of this hands-on work the class talked and learned about math language. The students understood It is not enough to say something is bigger or smaller than something else. After all, it’s possible to be taller but weigh less or be narrower than something else. They discussed how important it is to use the appropriate math language (average, greater than, less than). Then students compared using inches for measurement as well as the smaller Unifix cubes to see how this changes the number when describing the size of something.

As they worked, students tried to predict how tall, in Unifix cubes, each penguin would be based on the information we had gathered about the previous penguins. At these ages number sense varies greatly: some students are working on understanding what numbers like “ten” mean while others are able to go further and start to recognize the kinds of numbers that make sense based on what we know about penguin height.As an example, it take four little blue penguins to equal one Emperor Penguin.

The following day students measured themselves to answer the original question, “Are you taller than an Emperor Penguin?” (Hint, the penguin is pretty much the average size of a student in the class). They are given a ribbon that is as tall as them and then count the number of Unifix cubes it equals. Developmentally, bringing concepts “back to themselves” is a way to make learning more meaningful. To be able to say, “I am 40 inches tall and an Emperor penguin is 48 inches tall.” or “I am as tall as an Adélie penguin.” provide information that is relevant to the children.

Elementary Learning

Introduction to new concepts and challenges, such as how to make predictions well, helps support number sense while providing challenge and refining skills. This project is a fun way to answer a question with a goal of exposure to measurement ideas.