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Birds and Math

No-one has told me to my face, but I think they call me the “Bird Nerd”.

While I put out bird seed in my backyard feeder like many of you, I also have helped keep hummingbirds alive through five Seattle winters, traveled to Antarctica and the Canadian tundra to take photographs of birds, and help care for shorebirds and seabirds at a local aquarium.

The Christmas Bird Count is one of the big yearly bird events in North America. Counting birds in their winter territories establishes expected norms which helps private and public conservation groups develop appropriate species conservation plans.

When you see a large flock of birds, how do you count them? Usually, one estimates how much of the flock is occupied by 10 or 100 or 50 birds (a friendly number), then estimate how many of those chunks the flock occupies. Multiply the two numbers together and you have a reasonable estimate of the flock size.

How a Child’s Counting Explains The Ways In Which They Learn Math Skills

How would a small child count the birds in the flock? From watching preschoolers and kindergartner use our product during our school beta testing program — children use a variety of strategies.

The early learners try to count individual birds — 1, 2, 3, and so on. This is hard because the birds are moving around and it’s easy to lose track of which birds were counted, and which birds weren’t.

More advanced students use the subitizing skill; the ability to know at a glance how many objects are in a group. Developmental theory says that subitization is not quite the same as estimating large numbers on the order of 100, but large number estimation does build on this critical skill.

Our teachers strongly emphasize subitization in the K-level lessons. They started by using the standard-based curriculum underpinning all of our academic content. They then employed their own knowledge and experience working with children in the classroom.

Finally, they tested and refined their lessons during a year long beta program including in-school observation of children playing the lessons. After each school session the teachers would dive into an office and discuss in detail their observations of the kids and how lessons should be revised.

It’s this kind of passion for education, attention to detail, and refinement based on field observations that make me believe our teachers are great educators and experienced at turning dry academic standards into fun math games which really help children develop!


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