Books are great for babies. Research clearly supports this. What are the best books for babies? On a broad level, books that are easily handled are best – small size, made of board or cloth. Books that have large uncluttered illustrations are good – an infant’s ability to visually focus is developing through 6 months. Photos of faces are especially appealing. But can math be a part of the books babies interact with? Yes. Well, the concepts that lead to math.
We use our Precursor Concepts as a framework for discussing math thinking during the ages of 0-3. We refer to the baby stage as the Emerging Stage (0-15 months). Symbolic thought has not yet developed in infants, so they are most receptive to very generalized concepts that can be introduced when they are this age. This can of course take the form of reading!
Reading to Babies
Caregivers will be holding the baby up until the baby is about one year of age (lovingly, of course). They will need to hold the book also when reading but baby might reach, touch, and mouth the book. Caregivers initiate the reading, which can include pointing, asking questions, and making connections to baby. These are all done as “proto-conversations” with caregivers using “parentese” and encouraging the infant’s coos, gaze, and noises by waiting for a response.
Beginning about 7-10 months the infant will take increasing agency in book handling, pointing, and vocalizing. They may begin to respond with pleasure to the book. In later infancy, as baby moves through the babble stages, the interactions become true conversations.
Talking About the Math in Books for Babies
Reading through the book from beginning to end is not important at this stage – the book is an occasion for a warm conversational interaction. The best books for babies are often concept books and books that are based on songs, especially lullabies.
In regards to math, in the Emerging Stage infants are focused on sensory perceptions. These are connected to the Precursor Concepts: Attribute, Comparison, Pattern, and Change. Caregivers have a special role in mathematizing the Precursor Concepts. Infants and toddlers instinctively notice the math all around, but it is the caregiver who supports their receptive understanding by voicing and showing the words to use. That is, they explain how many, what size, or where something is located. For example, just the cover of Cleaning Up, Up Up (below) shows the father uses actions and words to show where the book belongs.
It’s also important to note that many books for babies make efforts to include multi-racial characters, diverse ethnicities, and rich multicultural experiences. It’s never too early to emphasize and celebrate such things.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
This board book is a great version of the classic song. It is good for pointing to, gesturing towards, and talking about Attributes. The book loosely suggests a story so that it can also be used with toddlers at the developing and transforming stages, with many opportunities to talk about the Precursor Concepts.
Small Talk Books by Ellen Mayer
This is a series of books from Star Bright Books specially developed to encourage book conversation experiences with infants and toddlers. Commissioned by Heising-Simons, they are great books for babies that encourage all kinds of early conceptual understanding.
My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith
This board or paperback book is illustrated by Julie Flett and is infused with a beautiful question: what fills you with happiness? The Native American characters and wonderful illustrations are inviting and inclusive.
I Love All of Me by Lorie Ann Grover
This board book encourages children to love all the little things about themselves. Illustrated by Carolina Buzio, it also allows caregivers to point out all the body parts babies have while they read, touching and talking about all the little Attributes.
What Happens Next by Cheryl Christian
This board book written in both English and Chinese encourages lots of talk about Pattern and Change.
Storytelling Math Series
This book series by Grace Lin and others is from Charlesbridge Press and includes 11 board books that encourage lots of math thinking. They have titles such as Up to My Knees, What Will Fit, and The Last Marshmallow. They all include a brief note from a TERC scholar giving tips for finding math all around us.
Peek-a-Boo by Roberta Intrater
This Baby Faces Board Book is part of a series published by Scholastic. This one is available in Spanish, English and other languages. The one-word text and emotions conveyed in the children’s faces encourage concepts of Attribute and Comparison.