Like a puzzle, part-whole thinking requires the ability to process a whole object, the discrete parts within it, and the relations among the parts and the whole. Research has shown that part-whole thinking relates to many areas of mathematical reasoning, including counting, early arithmetic, and geometry.
Research also suggests that one simple tweak of language can vastly improve children’s part-whole thinking.
The next time you and your learner count a group of items, refer to the group as a collection. For example, a quantity of blocks can be a “pile,” a cluster of animal toys can be a “family,” and a group of children can be a “team.” Instead of asking, “How many blocks are there?” ask, “How many blocks are in the pile?”
This simple change in language encourages children to consider the individual parts (the blocks) and the whole that the parts create (the pile) at the same time. In fact, one study showed that this strategy doubled children’s use of the cardinal principle—the idea that the number you arrive at after counting individual items represents the whole quantity.
When children look at objects or groups of objects, they tend to see either the whole picture or the parts within it. Help them take things a step further and understand how distinct objects can relate to each other to form a group!
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