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Learning Math in the Early Grades

Learning Math in the Early Grades
Darcy Drayton

Many students love math for its calm predictability. There is something wonderfully reassuring about 2+2 always = 4!

In the early grades of Waldorf schools, the approach to math is from what we call “the whole to the parts.” For example, what do you see in the world around you that makes 5? Five toes, five fingers, a five-pointed star, etc. From there we can look at what parts could make up 5? We also introduce all four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) at the same time and in relation to each other. Waldorf students arrive at the answer to these and other math questions through the use of stories, manipulatives, form drawing, artwork, movement and games, and of course, a lot of practice!

Math Stories

Just as young Waldorf students learn to read by listening to stories, stories also help early elementary students learn math concepts. Mathematical operations are commonly introduced in the early grades with a story such as this:

"As winter neared, the chipmunk was making sure she had plenty of food to last through the cold months. Each day, she scurried about, looking for acorns to store. At the end of one day, the chipmunk had brought five acorns back to the nest. But a mouse was watching closely, and when she went back out to gather some more acorns the mouse came and took two away. What does that mean for the chipmunk?”

Some days later the chipmunk’s brother gave her three baskets with two corn kernels in each basket. These can be added together to make 6, or we could multiply 3 X 2 = 6. Division could come about in the story when the chipmunk shares her gift with her elderly neighbor by dividing the 6 kernels in half or by 2, thus 6 ÷ 2 =3!


young student learning math concepts

Gems, stones, dried corn and, yes, acorns, are common manipulative tools in the early grades. By moving and grouping these objects, students more easily grasp mathematical concepts. In the story above, each student would start with five acorns, just like the chipmunk, and when the mouse comes, two acorns slide away so the children can see how many are left. They can then practice writing out the problem on paper or individual black boards before writing it into their Morning Lesson book. Over time, the problems become more challenging, perhaps counting to the thousands using something like dried corn kernels.

Form Drawing

This repetitive drawing of symbols and shapes is common in Waldorf classrooms. Done freehand, form drawing is designed to help children explore and recognize simple geometric shapes that in later grades they will construct with rulers and compasses.


The five-pointed, kite-paper star is a Waldorf staple. These beautiful works of art serve many mathematical purposes, including helping students see the whole with the parts. Creating these stars in the early elementary years also helps lay the foundation for fractions, which are taught beginning in grade 4. Hands-on projects like these help students grasp otherwise abstract ideas and gives them another route to understanding the material.

Movement and Games

It can be hard to sustain practice with math operations. But having a solid recall of things like the multiplication tables is critical for math success in the later years. Movement and games help children be more willing to keep at it. This kinesthetic learning approach to math takes numbers off of a page and into the students’ minds and bodies.

For example, I used to play this game with my students to help them learn their times tables: All of the students would stand on their desks after they had secretly chosen a specific times table number. I would call out numbers from the times tables, and when the number was from their secret table, the student had to bow. Students had to be aware of all of the numbers associated with their particular times table, while simultaneously trying to guess which table their peers had selected. If they guessed correctly, their classmate had to sit down. If they guessed incorrectly, however, they had to sit down. The last student standing is the one whose table number wasn’t guessed by the other students.

students learning their times tables

Math Tips for Parents

Model math at home to support your child’s math learning. Work out in front of them, preferably without calculators, the math associated with, for example, food or clothes bills. Math is found in cooking, gardening, card and board games, and hand-work projects such as woodwork, sewing, and knitting. It is important to model enthusiasm and interest: remember, they will be most interested in what interests you. Keep it developmentally appropriate and — most importantly — fun. Avoid putting too much pressure on your child; otherwise, it could end up creating stress, which will only hamper their learning.

Behind the Curriculum

As you carefully consider the learning environment you want for your child, you probably have a lot of questions.

Gain insight into specific aspects of the High Mowing School Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy from our experienced authors.

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